Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Criminal Brain

Those of us who write and read crime stories may be interested in a new wrinkle on what causes criminal behavior. The twist is in the wrinkliest part of anyone’s body—his brain. Neuroscientist David Eagleman, in an interview on the great public radio show Fresh Air, recently described his research on the criminal mind. Eagleman has written a book called Incognito, about the unconscious workings of the human brain. Everything about the interview is fascinating, but the part that struck me was his inquiries into criminal behavior and how it relates to the brain. He gave a couple of fascinating examples.

Remember that guy who went up into the tower at the University of Texas and killed those people? His name was Charles Whitman, a former Marine and a student at UT Austin. On August 1, 1966, this quiet, well-liked, academically excellent young man killed his mother and his wife in their home and then climbed the tower of the university’s administration building, killing three people along the way. From the observation deck, he opened fire on the people below. He killed ten more and wounded 32 others before being killed by the police.

The initial theories about why Whitman went bonkers posited a dysfunctional family and abuse of amphetamines. Whitman, who had been complaining of unbearable headaches, left a suicide note that asked that an autopsy be performed on his brain. The postmortem revealed that a brain tumor called a glioblastoma. The coroner’s report said it "conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions."  Eagleman thinks it did. I believe him.

Eagleman also told the story of a perfectly normal man in his forties who suddenly became a pedophile, collected child porn, and hit on his stepdaughter. When his wife found out, she threw him out of the house. He was arrested and served time. But in the meantime he was discovered to have a massive tumor on the frontal lobe of his brain. When it was removed, his behavior returned to normal. After a time, he started to display the criminal behavior again. He went back to the doctor, who discovered that a piece of the tumor had been left behind in the surgery. When they removed it, his behavior again returned to normal.

Eagleman insists that people who are dangerous have to be taken off the streets, but his research has enormous implications for the criminal justice system. If you would like to hear the interview, here is link to the podcast. This is all fascinating stuff and might influence the thinking of writers of crime fiction as well as the procedures of cops, judges, and wardens.

The part about criminal behavior comes in the second half of Terry Gross’s masterful (as usual) interview.

Annamaria Alfieri

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