When Wisecracks and Puns Are Symptoms of Brain Damage


Know someone who's always eager to foist puns and socially inappropriate wisecracks upon you?  Eli Christman/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Know someone who's always eager to foist puns and socially inappropriate wisecracks upon you? Eli Christman/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

You know a person who just simply cannot, under any circumstances, leave a "that's what she said" joke just hanging in the air, unsaid? Or maybe you know a pathological punner, or someone who wisecracks their way through life — even during the soberest conversations? If so, that person you tolerate might have a condition called Witzelsucht.

A person with Witzelsucht would most likely take this pause between paragraphs to make an inappropriate joke about the word "Witzelsucht."

Witzelsucht, meaning "addiction to joking" or "punning mania" in German, is not just a product of a naturally effervescent and guileless temperament — it's an actual neurological disorder. It's a rare one, but patients with the condition have often suffered past injury to the right side of the frontal cortex of the brain. The right frontal lobe is the part of the brain that houses our sense of humor — and while people with Witzelsucht always think their own jokes are hilarious, they don't really get as tickled by other people's. Understanding how damage to the right frontal lobe results in this particular ailment helps researchers understand a bit about what's going on with this condition, as well as brain processing in a normal sense of humor.

American writer, humorist and poet Ogden Nash, pictured here in London circa 1969, frequently used puns in his work. While he was never diagnosed with Witzelsucht, it wouldn't be that far off base to call him a pundit.
American writer, humorist and poet Ogden Nash, pictured here in London circa 1969, frequently used puns in his work. While he was never diagnosed with Witzelsucht, it wouldn't be that far off base to call him a pundit.
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

More on that in a moment. Here's a joke:

Two fish are swimming in a tank. One turns to the other and asks, "Do you know how to drive this?"

You might not have laughed out loud or anything, but something in your brain paused for a tick after you read that, and then maybe you smiled. Because the idea of talking fish driving a tank is absurd and there's a surprise double meaning in there to boot. Jokes, especially of the dad-joke groaner variety, often give us what Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman calls "the kick of discovery" in figuring something out. And since the frontal lobe is the center of a lot of analytical and puzzle-solving thought, the feeling of having experienced an "a-ha!" moment with a joke makes the brain release our favorite neurotransmitters: dopamine and serotonin.

In someone with Witzelsucht, though, the proper functioning of the frontal lobes of the brain has been impaired, making complex, analytical thought difficult — especially when they hear someone else's joke.

"They cannot see the relationship of the punchline to the joke, so they do not show surprise," Dr. Mario Mendez, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the co-author of a 2016 study about Witzelsucht, told the BBC.

However, damage to the frontal lobe can also knock the door between the frontal lobes and the pleasure centers of the brain off its hinges, so while those with Witzelsucht can't experience the kick of discovery in somebody else's joke, their own disjointed thoughts and random associations can trigger the same "a-ha!" feelings that a clever joke would.

However, Witzelsucht isn't all laughing hysterically at your own jokes. Some sufferers have symptoms of hypersexuality and severely taxed social functioning, because the condition also makes it more difficult for them to read social situations.