Mind Games

Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist David Eagleman has written a short-story collection, designed an iPad app, performed with Brian Eno, inspired an opera, won a Guggenheim, and jumped off a 150-foot ledge just to see how the brain perceives time while falling. But can he change the face of law and order?
Mind Games
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Baylor Neuro-Doc Exonerates Notorious Psycho Killer! Says Whitman Not Himself

As most of you no doubt know, on the morning of August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman dragged a footlocker full of firearms to the top of the University of Texas Tower and began firing on the town below. Over the next hour and a half he killed thirteen people and wounded thirty others, before being killed himself by a police officer.

Those are the facts. Now let’s play You, the Jury.

Had Whitman lived and gone to trial, what would it have taken to mitigate his responsibility for such a crime? An abusive father? Not enough, though he had that. There are many abusive fathers who don’t produce homicidal sons. Suppose you learned, as is in fact the case, that before the attacks Whitman had become convinced that there was something wrong with his head, and that he’d gone to see several doctors. They’d found nothing amiss and sent him on his way. But the coroner who performed his autopsy discovered a tumor that had damaged several regions of his brain, including a collection of neurons called the amygdala, which is now believed to play a central role in memory and emotional response and which, when damaged, can lead to a host of socially unacceptable behaviors, including hypersexuality, fearlessness, and paranoia. Now what?

Many of you will point out that brain tumors are like abusive fathers: Plenty of people have them without turning into killers. Others will say Whitman was no more responsible for his actions than an undiagnosed epileptic who had a seizure and crashed his car into a school bus. Most of us, I suspect, will fall somewhere in the middle. So let’s shift into the realm of thought experiment: Suppose Whitman had survived the incident and that the tumor was discovered and removed, leaving a perfectly gentle and self-possessed young man, horrified by his actions. Now who’s on trial? A good man turned bad through no fault of his own or a bad man turned good through modern surgery? Is he even the same man, before and after his operation? It’s time for your verdict: Innocent? Or guilty? And if so, of what?

Welcome to the brave new world of neuro-law. And while I’m at it, allow me to introduce you to David Eagleman, the founder and director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston; the director of Baylor’s Laboratory for Perception and Action; the author of dozens of academic papers and one university press book on synesthesia (the sensory phenomenon whereby people see the number 5 as blue or smell toast when they hear a G chord); and a newly minted Guggenheim Fellow.

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