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In Some Rare Instances, Brain Damage Can Lead to Joke Addiction

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It’s generally a good thing to have a sense of humor. But for some people, joking can become a compulsion.

In two case studies by a pair of UCLA brain researchers recently published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, the subjects' brain trauma and dementia led to what the scientists describe as “intractable joking.” Called Witzelsucht (German for "joke addiction"), excessive joking is a real neurological disease. Coming up with puns is pathological.

For five years, one man, an anonymous 69-year-old, would wake his wife up in the middle of the night to tell her jokes he’d come up with. When she complained, he wrote them down instead—accumulating 50 pages of puns and poop jokes that he later revealed to the researchers.

Ten years before he visited the lab, this man suffered a brain hemorrhage that changed his behavior. He became compulsive, particularly about recycling. He would dig through dumpsters to try to find recyclables, and hoard napkins from restaurants. Five years after the episode, his compulsion turned toward comedy. In what was later attributed to a stroke, he became so obsessed with making jokes and puns that it began to wear on his relationship with his wife. He laughed incessantly at his own jokes, yet he struggled to find other people’s jokes funny. On a multiple choice test in the lab, he could identify the punch lines of jokes, but didn’t laugh or find them funny. But his own quips—like “How do you cure hunger? Step away from the buffet table!”—he couldn’t stop giggling at.

In the second case studied, a 57-year-old with dementia got fired from his job for his inability to quash his jokester persona. He was let go after he blurted “Who the hell chose this God-awful place?” at work. He “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,” the researchers describe. He disco-danced during one visit to the clinic to meet with the researchers, grabbing the ties of passing physicians and comparing them on another visit. Like the aforementioned pun-lover, though, he didn’t find other people’s jesting amusing. His sense of humor was entirely personal. When he died, the man’s autopsy showed that he had Pick’s disease, a form of dementia, that resulted in severe atrophy of the frontal lobes of his brain.

These men did not die of laughter, and it sounds like their friends and family were excessively patient with them. Still, joke addiction is serious business. Figuring out the brain issues that lead to this compulsive jesting and merriment can help us understand how the brain processes humor—a particularly human behavior psychologists and other researchers still don’t entirely understand. Both the cases above represented patients with frontal lesions from brain trauma and neurodegenerative disease. The frontal regions of the brain, especially on the right side of the brain, seem to play a major role in our ability to see the humor in the world, and get other people’s jokes. People with lesions on the right frontal lobe of their brain still respond to silly puns and slapstick, but can’t appreciate more complicated jokes or those that are new to them (as in, told by someone else). And with the damage to the parts of the brain involved in self-control, these people lose the ability to stop themselves from making that terrible pun.

Next, perhaps researchers will discover the neurological root of Dad Jokes.

[h/t BBC]

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New Study Shows It's Surprisingly Easy to Make People Have Auditory Hallucinations
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If you’ve ever heard something that wasn't there—an auditory hallucination—you know that the sound seems very, very real. A new study suggests that it's easy to induce auditory hallucinations in people, but it's even easier in people who already claim to hear things that aren't there. The research was published in the journal Science.

Co-author Al Powers is a psychiatric researcher at Yale. Speaking in a study, he said hallucinations “…may arise from an imbalance between our expectations about the environment and the information we get from our senses.”

In other words, he says, "You may perceive what you expect, not what your senses are telling you."

Powers and his colleagues recruited 59 people to help them test that hypothesis. There were four groups of participants: people who heard voices and had been diagnosed with psychosis; people who had been diagnosed with psychosis but didn’t hear voices; people who heard voices but had not been diagnosed with any mental illness (we'll come back to that in a moment); and people who just plain didn't hear voices.

The third group was an unusual one: 15 self-professed psychics. These participants said that they heard voices every day, but unlike people in the first group—those diagnosed with psychosis who heard voices—they weren't bothered by the voices they claimed to hear. In fact, they took them to be communications from supernatural forces or entities.

All the participants then underwent brain scans. While they were in the scanner, the researchers used a combination of sounds and images to trick their brains into producing auditory hallucinations. First, participants were shown a checkerboard and played a sound. Then they were told to listen for the sound. Sometimes it played when the checkerboard appeared. Sometimes it didn't play at all, but the checkerboard showed, which led their brains to expect the sound would be played.

Members of all four groups experienced the hallucinations, hearing noises even in the silence. Their brain scans showed that they really were "hearing" the nonexistent sounds.

Unsurprisingly, the two groups of hallucination-prone people were more susceptible to hearing things. But when they were told that there had in fact been no sound, people with psychosis were less likely to believe it. 

The authors say this difference could potentially help doctors spot, diagnose, and treat psychosis in their patients before it becomes severe.

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How Freud’s Only Visit to America Made Him Hate the U.S. for the Rest of His Life
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As a young man, Sigmund Freud loved the United States. His fervor began at age 17, when he came across a copy of the Gettysburg Address displayed at the 1873 International Exhibition in Vienna. Freud was so taken with Lincoln’s expressions of liberty and equality that he memorized the speech, then recited it to his sisters. A few years later, he even considered moving to America, particularly as anti-Semitism grew in his native Austria. But instead he chose to stay put, contenting himself with hanging a copy of the Declaration of Independence above his bed.

In the years that followed, Freud developed many of the same prejudices against America held by many cultured Viennese (mostly that Americans were backward and uneducated). But his youthful passion for the country was reawakened in December 1908, when he received a letter from G. Stanley Hall. Hall, the president of the small but prestigious Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the first president of the American Psychological Association, invited Freud to deliver a series of lectures to mark the university's 20th anniversary, in September 1909. After some negotiation, Hall also offered an honorary doctorate—Freud’s first and only—as well as a stipend of $750 (about $20,000 in today’s money). The founding father of psychoanalysis was delighted, writing to his disciple Carl Jung, “This has thrilled me more than anything else that has happened in the last few years."

At the time, Freud had achieved only modest success with books like 1899's Interpretation of Dreams. But in America, things were different. The first clue came during the steamer trip to New York, when Freud found the cabin steward reading his book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life; the psychoanalyst passed time on the journey analyzing fellow passengers' dreams. Once in Massachusetts, Freud was shocked to find out that the faculty at Clark University was not only acquainted with his work, but had been lecturing the students about it as well. He was also delightfully surprised that in “prudish America one could, at least in academic circles, freely discuss and scientifically treat everything that is regarded as improper in everyday life.”

All the attention given to his work gave Freud a renewed belief in himself and fresh enthusiasm for his subject matter. In his autobiography, he would recall his American lectures as “the realization of some incredible daydream: psychoanalysis was no longer a product of delusion, it had become a valuable part of reality.”

But despite the glow of his success, not everything went smoothly on the three-week trip. Soon, Freud found much to complain about—and began nursing a resentment against America that would last the rest of his life.

Photo of Sigmund Freud, Stanley Hall, Carl Gustav Jung, Abraham Arden Brill, Ernest Jones and Sándor Ferenczi at Clark University in 1909
Sigmund Freud (far left), G. Stanley Hall, Carl Gustav Jung, and other luminaries at Clark University in 1909.

The psychoanalyst's chief problem: stomach trouble, which he blamed on American cooking. There was one meal in particular that inflamed his stomach and his ire, a steak prepared by culinary “savages” at a campfire during an excursion in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. For the rest of his life, he would refer to this trip as the beginning of his “American colitis.” (Some scholars, though, say his digestive problems long predated the cookout.)

Freud's ego was also bruised on a side visit to Niagara Falls, where a guide at the Cave of the Winds called him “the old fellow." (His mood improved when he saw a wild porcupine, one of the main objectives of his trip.) But a bigger problem was his own personal Niagara Falls, courtesy of prostate trouble and exacerbated by the lack of public bathrooms, even in New York City. Of the bathrooms that did exist, he complained, “They escort you along miles of corridors and ultimately you are taken to the very basement where a marble palace awaits you, only just in time.”

Perhaps worst of all was his insomnia: American women were giving him erotic dreams and affecting his ability to get a good night’s sleep. While in Worcester, he confided in Carl Jung, who had also been invited to speak, that he hadn’t “been able to sleep since [he] came to America” and that he “continue[d] to dream of prostitutes.” When Jung pointed out a rather obvious solution to this problem, Freud indignantly reminded him that he was married.

Freud also found Americans far too informal. As radical as his ideas seemed for the time, Freud was a highly proper man, and he could barely conceal his distaste when an amiable Yankee dared to address him by his first name.

Beyond lack of formality, Freud (or “Sigmund,” as his improper American buddies called him) took issue with the coeducational system then more prevalent in the U.S. In his view, explained a few decades later, “The girls develop more rapidly than the boys, feel superior to them in everything and lose their respect for the male sex.” The consequence was that American women “lead the men around by the nose, make fools of them, and the result is a matriarchy ... In Europe, things are different. Men take the lead. That is as it should be.”

When it came time to speak at Clark, the patriarchal thinker presented five lectures on "The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis," each of which was “prepared only a half-hour before it was given,” as B. R. Hergenhahn and Tracy Henley relate in An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Since Freud’s English was less than stellar, these lectures, which were open to the public, were delivered in his native German. The media gave the lectures limited attention, but the exposure to others in the U.S. scholarly community led to an increase in the circulation of Freud’s ideas, as well as their translation into English.

The Freudian influence was underway, and as the Roaring Twenties arrived, his notoriety skyrocketed in America. But he never returned to bask in the glory.

Instead, he harbored a grudge against America, and continued to blame the U.S. for a number of personal issues (including, somehow, the degeneration of his penmanship). On a grander scale, he contended that the nation’s “present cultural state” was a “damage to civilization.” He said to a friend: “America is a mistake; a gigantic mistake it is true, but none the less a mistake.”

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