Could Your Brain Make You Do Insane Things?

The insanity defense may yet prove to be surprisingly credible.

Posted Mar 25, 2017

Nate Nolding/FreeImages
Source: Nate Nolding/FreeImages

This week, a captured 18-year-old Israeli male may have been responsible for the recent spate of hoax calls to Jewish community centers in the United States and elsewhere in the world. The most surprising aspect of this breaking news situation is that the alleged perpetrator has had a brain tumor for years and his defense lawyer claims it's the tumor that made him do it.

I'll be watching this case unfold with some interest, having just read The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America's Courtrooms, by Kevin Davis, a journalist, and author.

Many of us tend to deny credibility to the insanity defense when someone has confessed to committing a horrendous crime. In the case at the center of this new book, a man admitted to strangling his wife during an argument and tossing her, possibly still alive, from their apartment window. He was found to have a growing cyst in his brain, and his lawyer used that in his defense.


What does it mean to be temporarily insane? Who in their right mind would kill their wife and toss her from a window? Similarly, as in the case currently in the news, what kind of crazy does it take to disrupt the security of a whole community or religion, especially when you're ostensibly a member of that religion?

The fact is that some people's brains do not work correctly for one reason or another, at one time or another. Only fairly lately in human history have scientists been able to see images of those damaged brains. Kevin Davis, author of The Brain Defense, interweaves the particulars of one famed criminal case (the wife murderer) with chapters about other cases and the milestones and controversy around the insanity defense.

One major issue is this: Does it reduce a person's criminal responsibility when it is their impaired brain that made them do it? If someone has Tourette's syndrome or Parkinson's disease, for example, we understand that their free will is hampered so they are unable to stop certain muscle movements. Of course, that doesn't mean that someone who can't control their muscles is liable to obtain and use a gun, or be held innocent if they toss people from windows, even if a cyst is growing in their brain.

As Davis writes, "No matter what their condition, most humans can follow rules or choose to break them." For now, in general, jury members and the public seem to agree, until scientists (and criminal lawyers) are able to prove otherwise.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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