Head injuries, brain abnormalities, and violence

While there is incontrovertible evidence that brain damage can lead to an increase in violent behavior, I can easily see it becoming an excuse for defense attorneys to claim that their clients were not acting in their “right” state of mind.

Phineas GageFrontal lobe dementia and head injuries to the frontal lobe have resulted in aggressive outbursts, such as the famous case of Phineas Gage, who ended up with a metal rod through his posterior pre-frontal cortex. It was noted that after the accident Gage was no longer himself and his behavior was more antisocial than it had been before the accident. One of our most influential neuroscientists, Antonio Damasio, has examined this phenomenon in great deal and coined the term acquired sociopathy to analogize the frontal lobe damage in these patients to the developmental errors we see in psychopaths.

Antonio Damasio

Damasio has also worked with many patients with dementia brought on by various diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s Disease, and if the dementia is in the frontal lobe, the chances for antisocial behavior do indeed seem to be higher. It is my opinion that a healthy frontal lobe allows one to adhere to a ‘superego’ or cultural morality, and so damage here seems to sever that link, destroying a crucial layer to behavioral regulation.

Charles Whitman

The autopsy of Charles Whitman, a man who shot numerous people at the University of Texas in Austin in 1966, found a tumor in his hypothalamus, an area strongly involved in many of our basic drives – fighting, fleeing, reproducing, eating, and sleeping. It might just be coincidental, but the fact that a tumor was interfering in such a powerful and crucial area it seems unlikely that the tumor can be completely disregarded in an analysis of his behavior.

Astley (left) and Fujita (right)

Astley (left) and Fujita (right)
Click photo for Crimesider article

In the news today, there is a case involving the murder of an exgirlfriend, Lauren Astley, by a guy the same age, Nathanial Fujita. They were in high school together and the murder happened two years ago, whereby Fujita strangled and stabbed Astley. Fujita’s attorney is not disputing the murder, but he is claiming that Fujita was suffering a brief psychotic episode, something that if proven could diminish Fujita’s culpability.

A forensic psychiatrist, Wade Myers, has said that Fujita could have suffered traumatic brain injuries from football, and that he suffered from a number of mental problems. On top of this there is an apparent history in Fujita’s family of paranoia, schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression.

This kind of defense worries me, because it seems like the psychiatrist is throwing out every reason under the Sun in the hopes that one of these issues played a causal role in Fujita’s “disconnection” from reality as he murdered his exgirlfriend. I personally think the history of paranoia, schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression is irrelevant, albeit there are no doubt genetic predispositions and susceptibilities to those conditions. Connecting causal violence to all of those conditions, in this context, is tantamount to fishing with no hook.

The idea that football caused this departure from reality is also troubling to me. I think it’s far more plausible that a continued battering to the head could lead to abnormalities in behavior, but violent behavior? It’s possible, I suppose. But this happens to so many football players. Are we going to accept that when these athletes act violently towards loved ones, it’s because of their sport? Do we need to re-examine the safety and long term effects of these games?

Myers might be bang on the mark, but I suspect that in order to really know what’s going on, there might not be the knowledge or the time to figure it out, thus the avalanche of excuses.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2013



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