Bundy vs. Einstein: Whose brain is more important?

The post-mortem studies of Einstein’s brain have recently re-appeared in the media (Huffington Post / NBC News / Fox News), and to be sure, the story of the physicist’s brain from when it was removed in 1955 by Thomas Harvey to its current state in many many pieces is fascinating. The drive behind this ongoing analysis is to no doubt find the neurological correlates of not just intelligence, but genius – and I mean this in the sense of profound thinker, because clearly genius could be applied to anyone with exceptional skills in the entire gamut of all human activity.

Like anyone interested in the great thinkers, I think the ongoing studies are amazing, and sure, as neuroscientific procedures become more sophisticated, there is no doubt we can learn more and more about what helps to shape the brain of an Einstein.

But what about the brain of a Bundy?

Ted Bundy was a serial killer from the Pacific Northwest who murdered at least thirty women, and after a rather chaotic flight across the country, was executed in Florida by the electric chair in 1989. There are at least two important notes about Bundy that would have made a study of his brain invaluable. Firstly, he was very good at what he did. Keppel, one of the detectives who were instrumental in Bundy’s apprehension, writes of his intelligence and patience; qualities that helped him evade capture for years. And secondly, Bundy eventually told Keppel (during an interaction that was supposed to aid in the capture of the Green River Killer), the dark desires that led him to kidnap, murder and necrophilia, were like a chemical tidal wave washing through his brain, like an addiction to a narcotic.

These two important points about the behavioral characteristics of Bundy could very well have been reflected in his brain. Bundy had numerous psychological tests once he was apprehended, but the exact nature of his pathology is still unknown. The likely candidates, two conditions in this case that go hand in hand, are Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) and Psychopathy. To be sure, we know that people with these disorders have different brains – deficits have been found in the frontal cortex, the amygdala, and regions in between: And behaviorally, these are the people who rate highly on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, meaning that they do exhibit violent tendencies, have limited or frustrating emotional experiences, and have no conscience.

We would perhaps expect Bundy’s brain to demonstrate some of the neurological deficits mentioned above, but Bundy was more than a psychopath – he was a serial killer. Given that serial killers are only a minute fraction of the population and that when they are caught they are either executed or left to live out their lives in a maximum security penitentiary, access to their brain is very limited. In my opinion, this makes their brain even more academically valuable, and if access to the brain is denied it also denies any real neurobiological understanding of the serial killer brain – something that is perhaps as equally valuable as knowing what contributed to Einstein’s genius.

I do not think it would be difficult to persuade a serial killer to donate their brain to science after their death. If they are indeed psychopathic, then their ego could very well be coaxed into handing over “the center of their criminal genius” to researchers after death. When listening to this interview with Bundy, the day before his execution, it is not hard to imagine that his own intellectual curiosity and his ego would have turned his brain over to science.

Perhaps somebody could persuade the state of California and Richard Ramirez to preserve Ramirez’s brain for study after death, or Gary Ridgway (the Green River Killer) to give up his brain to science after he lives out his life?

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012

4 thoughts on “Bundy vs. Einstein: Whose brain is more important?

  1. wildjuggling

    Interesting post. I often wonder if it will be possible in the future to identify, during early childhood, who will grow up to be a psychopath, based on brain-scans and other medical tests. If somehow they figure out how to accurately predict this(although it seems far-fetched), this raises so many ethical questions. Granted, the vast majority of psychopaths are not murderers or even criminals. And many criminals are not psychopaths.

    However, it often seems to me that an awful lot of politicians and ruthless businesspeople may be psychopaths, but this is just pure speculation on my part.

    I wish you well on your neuroscience path. Happy Thanksgiving.


    1. Jack Pemment Post author

      I don’t think it’s speculation at all, I think you’re bang on the mark with psychopaths being politicians and business people. Many of them are in public office and positions of power.

      We definitely need better ways to predict and identify psychopathy, unfortunately it usually takes witnessing acts of cruelty, such as torturing animals or other children.

      Those with psychopathy usually have deficits in the areas of the brain involved in personality – therefore any changes (treatments) to these areas will effect personality, so you would definitely be changing the person. So you’re totally right, it would be fraught with ethical considerations.

      Anyway, you have a great Thanks Giving, too!


      1. Kerfufflist

        Certainly not just speculation – they actually has a whole article on this in the recent SciAm 🙂 http://www.nature.com/scientificamerican/journal/v307/n4/full/scientificamerican1012-76.html

        Personally I’d be interested not only in knowing the brain abnormalities in convicted criminal psychopaths, but the distribution of psychopathy among different demographics (Are Republicans slightly more fiendish than Democrats? ). But for example within the Arts and Humanities – would it be possible to have no empathy/egocentricity and yet fool the art-onlookers into interpreting feeling?
        Great topic for pondering, anyway! x


  2. Jack Pemment Post author

    @Kerfufflist – There was a meme going around that serial killers tend to vote Republican, but I’ve only ever heard that in a movie (The Life of David Gale). They did find that liberals and conservatives have different brains; conservatives have a larger amygdala, and liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex.
    I think some psychopaths become experts at fooling and feigning emotion, despite having no empathy. The question here is, is it intentional or do they just learn to do this as they develop a means to survive in the world?



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