The Science of Humour Appreciation
In 1929, German neurologist Otfrid Foerster was operating on a patient to remove a tumour when suddenly, the patient started “a manic flight of speech” and joked excessively. December 2005, a 56 year old man, KS, was admitted to the ER after a stroke with paralysis on the left side of his body and face and would, in the following days, develop inappropriate jokes and exaggerated similes. KS’ family were surprised at his behaviour, which was “unlike him”. The symptoms were unusual, and quite paradoxical actually, because although they joked compulsively, they did not seem to understand or appreciate others’ humour. These cases, and others, documented in neurological literature are descriptions of a condition called “Witzelsucht”, in the literal translation of the word, Joke Addiction. This is not a diagnosis on the TV show ‘House’, it is, however, just as uncommon. It is, nevertheless, fascinating and raises numerous questions into the origin of personality and humour in our brains.
The most frequently documented cause of Witzelsucht is damage to the frontal lobe, especially on the right side. The frontal lobe has been related to many cognitive functions such as judgement, problem solving, impulse control and social behaviour since the wellknown case of Phineas Gage. Gage’s change in personality after an iron rod traversed his brain and damaged his frontal lobe challenged 19th century’s perception of the mind and brain.
Three cognitive functions are particularly deficient in witzelsucht patients and have lead them to impaired humour appreciation, and consequently lead us to deeper understanding of the role of the frontal cortex in humour. These are: integration, episodic memory, and emotional responsiveness. Primarily, incongruity theory, one of the major theories of humour, depends on integration of the start of the joke with the punchline. Incongruity is often identified with “frustrated expectation,” a concept we owe to Immanuel Kant, who says that humor arises “from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” More is implied here than merely surprise; the suggestion is that humor consists in the violent dissolution of an emotional attitude. The theory simply considers humour perception a problem solving task, and since problem solving is a function of the frontal cortex, it is impaired by its damage. Another aspect is episodic memory which is a memory of autobiographical events in which the context of humour is understood. It is not surprising that humour appreciation depends on our past personal experiences, and is related to how we were brought up, the company we keep, and where we come from.
● Granadillo ED, Mendez MF: Pathological Joking or Witzelsucht Revisited, The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 2016 Feb 22:appineuropsych15090238.