Brain Oddities: No Joke

Brain oddities

I never look forward to those awkward moments when I’m surrounded by friends or family and someone cracks a really inappropriate joke. The responses vary: some chuckle uncomfortably; others pretend they didn’t catch the incongruent punch line and quietly disperse; some confront the now alienated jokester: “You can’t say things like that!”

I tend to prefer a poor joke as opposed to an inappropriate one. At least then a polite laugh is a sufficient response. With a disorder known as Witzelsucht, you may not get that choice. Individuals who develop Witzelsucht pathologically tell poor and inappropriate jokes.

You may be thinking, I know tons of people who have this disorder. More than likely, there is a distinction between your quirky friend and individuals who develop this disorder. This condition is not present from birth and is not part of someone’s normal personality. Worst of all, it never ceases. No matter the amount of constructive feedback you give to these one-person comedy shows, individuals with Witzelsucht will relentlessly tell jokes and puns, many of them inappropriate. In addition, you may be subject to listening to many a pointless story while keeping the company of someone with Witzelsucht. Doctors, friends, and family often report that these patients will tell a story with no ending or point whatsoever.

Oddly, if you tell a legitimately funny joke, it can be totally lost on someone with Witzelsucht. They may stare blankly at funny movies or television shows, without the slightest hint that something objectively funny is occurring. So even if you find their offhanded puns and head-scratching stories amusing, this dynamic makes for a very one-sided fun fest.

So what causes someone to become humor-challenged? Scientists have long known that the brain’s frontal lobe is involved in personality, emotional control, and reason. It’s no surprise that this area of the brain mediates something as complex as creating humor. Specifically, lesions, disease, or trauma to the right orbitofrontal part of this lobe results in this unusual disorder (see diagram below). Injury to the left side, however, can result in depression and anger management problems. Treatments for both include behavioral therapy and/or mood stabilizers.

Orbito-Frontal Lobe

I guess, if I had to pick between the two brain conditions, I would choose to be the awkward comedian as opposed to dealing with depression. However, my friends and family—and pretty much anyone within earshot—might feel differently.

–Elizabeth Weaver


Moria and Witzelsücht from Frontotemporal Dementia
Mario F. Mendez, M.D., Ph.D.
The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 2005; 17: 429-430.

Witzelsucht after Right Putaminal Hemorrhage: A Case Report
Ying-Chu Chen, Chi-Yu Tseng, and Ming-Chyi Pai
Acta Neurol Taiwan 2005;14:195-200

3 responses

  1. I’ve heard of Witzelsucht. It’s such a bizarre, but sad disorder. Isn’t it also related to Foerster’s syndrome? Apparently, it’s associated with tumors or lesions on the frontal lobes. Witnessing a psycho ward can definitely introduce anyone to the tragedy behind this illness. Interesting blog, nice post. Thanks for sharing.

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