Are Brain Problems A Common Denominator in Mass Murders?

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University of Texas tower. Photo by Niraj Patel via Flickr

The modern era of mass shootings began 50 years ago this month when 25-year-old Charles Whitman opened fire atop the University of Texas Tower in Austin, killing 14 people and wounding 32 others before he was shot dead by police. Later analysis found that a brain tumor “could have contributed to his inability to control his actions and emotions,” writes writes columnist Brian Dickerson in the Detroit Free Press. Dickerson asked neuroscientist David Eagleman, who wrote about the Whitman case,  if brain deficits or deformities might not be the common denominator in mass murders popularly attributed to terrorist organizations or the proliferation of assault weapons.

“It is probably the case, more often than not, that there is something really wrong with these people’s brains,” Eagleman said. “We just don’t have the data.” Of the 129 individuals (all but three were male) responsible for mass shootings on U.S. soil since Whitman’s 1966 attack, 73 (or well over half) died at or near the scene, usually by their own hand. In many cases, the perpetrators had complained of delusions, disembodied voices or other phenomena associated with psychotic illness. Dickerson asks, “Is it a coincidence that so many shooters who took their own lives did so by obliterating the same organ — the brain — to which they traced whatever urgent impulse compelled them?” The columnist concludes: If some neurological conditions are like time bombs waiting to go off, shouldn’t we be searching for them as zealously as we search for actual explosives?


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