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Health and Medicineneuroscience

The Neurological Condition That Makes You Tell Inappropriate Jokes

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockMay 18 2022, 16:55 UTC
Witzelsucht

You probably don't have it. Image credit: Sergey Furtaev/Shutterstock.com

There are certain conditions that as soon as you hear about them, you believe that you have them, even though you (probably) don't. Witzelsucht fits neatly into this category, being a compulsion to tell inappropriate jokes, make puns, or otherwise tell pointless stories.

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Patients with Witzelsucht tend to make jokes compulsively, sometimes without realizing that what they'd said was inappropriate, or even funny. In another bizarre aspect to the disorder, patients can sometimes have difficulty reading sarcasm.

The term, translated from German, literally means joke (Witz) and addiction (Sucht). It was first used to describe four patients seen by neurologist Hermann Oppenheim in the 1880s. The patients all had right frontal lobe tumors, and "an addiction to trivial, excessive, and often sarcastic joking".

The condition is rare, but there are case reports documenting the condition out there. One 54-year-old began displaying a range of unusual behaviors, including the inappropriate joking, childish comments, and laughing at his own jokes. The condition got him into trouble, when he said "who the hell chose this place" during a work event and was fired. 

After three years of inappropriate overfamiliarity and diminishing personal hygiene, the man was evaluated for the behavioral changes.

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"On examination, the patient would frequently break out in laughter, almost cackling, at his own comments, opinions, or jokes, many of which were borderline sexual or political in content," his psychiatric team wrote in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. This behavior continued under their care.

"On one clinic visit, he began disco dancing; on another, he publicly discussed his sexual situation; and at a third visit, he grabbed the examiner’s tie and that of a passing physician and started to compare them. Throughout these behaviors, the patient would quickly lapse into laughter."

Like most other patients with Witzelsucht, he had problems with his right frontal lobe, which appears to be vital to humor and inhibitory control. In his case it was Pick’s disease that caused the damage to this part of his brain.

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Witzelsucht sometimes has a sexual element to it, or hypersexuality, and other forms of disinhibition. After a hemorrhage, one 59-year-old described by the same team began hugging young women for longer than was appropriate, as well as compulsively recycling and shoplifting. The patient felt generally happy, but his constant joking was annoying his wife.

"He would wake her up in the middle of the night bursting out in laughter, just to tell her about the jokes he had come up with."

As a compromise, he began to write down his jokes instead, meaning that when he was seen by a psychiatric team, he had 50 pages of jokes ready to go.

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"Went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get my driver’s license. They gave me an eye exam and here is what they said: ABCDEFG, HIJKMNLOP, QRS, TUV, WXY and Z; now I know my ABC’s, can I have my license please?" was one joke the man sent to the BBC when they wrote about his case, and "how do you cure hunger? Step away from the buffet table."

They might not be the best jokes, but they made him laugh hysterically. According to the BBC, the rest are largely too rude to publish.

Though the ability to write many, many jokes may seem like a superpower, it comes at a price beyond the other socially awkward consequences.

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"The paradox of Witzelsucht and moria is that these patients are actually insensitive to humor not generated by themselves," the team wrote. "Even when they recognize and understand a joke, they do not effectively respond with a sense of mirth or with laughter. In other words, they do not feel the punchline as humorously connected to the storyline, yet simple forms of humor that do not require integration of a punchline (e.g., slapstick and puns) may still be experienced as funny."

There is no cheering Pagliacci.


Health and Medicineneuroscience
  • neuroscience

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