On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman murdered his mother and his wife before traveling to the campus of the University of Texas, climbing inside the tower, and killing fourteen others. He was dubbed the infamous UT sniper, but his story involves much more than Marine Corps training and a proclivity for violence. In fact, Whitman complained of headaches and an altered mental state in the days and weeks leading up to the killings. His own suicide note read that "I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts."
Whitman knew that something was wrong. His note further reads, "After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder." And indeed there was. Whitman was found to have a glioblastoma, a type of brain tumor, pressing against regions of the brain thought to be responsible for the regulation of strong emotions.
To learn more about the link between brain damage and violence, I reached out to Dr. Michael Koenigs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Neuroscience Training Program, a researcher specializing in emotional, social, and personality changes following focal brain lesions. Please see the video above and/or the transcript below. And don't forget to weigh in by leaving a comment at the bottom of this page.
MALE VOICE: The time is 5:30.
CHET HUNTLEY: David Brinkley is on vacation. I'm Chet Huntley. For an hour and a half today, the normally placid university and capital city of Austin, Texas was held in the grip of a terror which began in killing and ended in killing.
MALE VOICE: Charles J. Whitman, a 25-year-old Marine veteran who earned a sharpshooter rating while on active duty. He was identified by police as the sniper.
CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everybody. Cara Santa Maria here. As many of you know, 38-year-old Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was recently charged with 17 counts of murder, following the killings of nine children and eight adults in Southern Afghanistan. His lawyer claims that a previous brain injury could be implicated. The speculation surrounding this story is eerily similar to the case of Charles Whitman, the infamous University of Texas sniper who killed 16 people and injured 32 others on August 1, 1966. I reached out to Michael Koenigs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison to learn more about the brains of mass murderers.
MICHAEL KOENIGS: There are certain kinds of brain injuries, so physical damage to the organ in your head, that result in very profound changes in emotional reactions, you know, how we interact with other people, in short, our personalities.
CSM: Studying this fundamental link between brain and behavior could shed light on just why some perfectly normal, non-violent people snap and commit mass murder. You see, in very rare instances, a person may suffer damage to a highly specific region of the brain that can cause catastrophic changes to his or her mental state.
MK: Far and away damage to prefrontal cortex is most commonly associated with personality changes.
CSM: In the case of Charles Whitman, prior to his killing spree, he complained of headaches and peculiar neurological symptoms.
MALE VOICE: I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. [excerpt from Whitman's suicide note]
CSM: On autopsy, he was found to have a brain tumor the size of a walnut pressing against the thalamus, hypothalamus, and amygdala.
MK: So the areas that were affected by Whitman's tumor, the hypothalamus and the amygdala in particular, are known to play a critical role in mediating an individual’s emotional state. Alright, so the amygdala is well known to be this structure that is critically involved in the experience of fear and anxiety.
CSM: Whitman expressed profound regret after killing his mother.
MALE VOICE: I have just taken my mother's life. I am very upset over having done it...Let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart. [excerpt from Whitman's suicide note]
MK: It’s important to keep in mind that other individuals who have incurred damage or injury in that part of the brain do not end up as mass murderers, so the Whitman case is very unusual in that regard.
CSM: What do you think about the link between brain damage and murder? Reach out to me on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments right here on the Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
DISCLAIMER: Robert Bales has not been convicted of any crime.
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