Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Soul of Wit

By Tim Hannan

Laughter may be the best medicine, but some jokers may be incurable.

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Just in time for the Melbourne Comedy Festival, a new study has explored the phenomenon of incessant joking by patients with brain injuries. First described in the 1880s, the pathological compulsion to tell jokes is known in the scientific literature by the German term Witzelsucht. Patients with this affliction are relentless in their attempts to make humorous remarks, which include puns, slapstick or other forms of lowbrow humour. Some repeatedly utter sexual or scatological comments in socially inappropriate situations.

Sufferers appear unaware that their behaviour is abnormal, and do not modify their joke-telling in response to feedback. While finding their own jokes and stories immensely amusing, they generally don’t find other peoples’ jokes funny at all.

In February clinicians from Los Angeles described two cases of Witzelsucht in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences (www.tinyurl.com/hqxcyot). One was a 69-year-old man with a 5-year history of compulsively telling jokes to his wife. To prevent him from repeatedly waking her during the night to tell jokes, she persuaded him to write them down, resulting in 50 pages of chiefly sexual or scatological humour such as:

Q. What is a pill-popping sexual molester guilty of?
A. Rape and pillage; and...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.