What causes people to do bad things? Bad things happen everyday, and some truly horrific things have happened over the last several weeks.

What if there is something wrong with our brains, a biological reason for doing something bad?

On Aug 1st, 1966 a student (Whitman) at the University of Texas at Austin climbed a tower on campus armed with several rifles. Over the next hour he killed 16 people. In the months before the killings, the shooter told a psychiatrist of his overwhelming violent impulses. In a suicide note he wrote

I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks

The Whitman ArchivesAustin American-Statesman. July 31, 1966.

He also asked in the same note that an autopsy be performed to determine if a biological cause for his feelings and intense headaches could be discovered. A subsequent autopsy discovered a brain tumor. While the investigation at the time could not confirm that the tumor contributed to his actions, they could not rule it out. One theory is  that the tumor pressed against Whitman’s amygdala , a part of the brain related to anxiety and the flight-or-flight response.

Another case with conclusive results was the story of a 40 year old married man with a stepdaughter. Out of nowhere he began to visit prostitutes, and visited websites which focused on pedophilia. He soon made advances on his stepdaughter and when his wife found out, kicked him out of the house. He was found guilty of child molestation and ordered to complete a 12-step rehabilitation program for sexual addiction or go to jail.

He could not even fight the urges in the addiction program, and made advances toward the staff and other clients. The night before he was to turn himself in for his prison sentence, he was rushed to the hospital with a headache and loss of balance. Even at the hospital he solicited female members of the staff for sexual favors. From an article on this case:

Scans later revealed that he had a brain tumor, which may or may not have been related to the injury. Days after it was removed, the man’s life was transformed.

Hours later he regained bladder control and his gait returned to normal. Seven months later, he has completed a Sexaholics Anonymous program, and was allowed to return home to his wife and stepdaughter.

But he became concerned when he started to develop persistent headaches and started to collect pornography again. The tumor that had caused his pedophilia had returned. When it was removed, he was once again cured.

Scientists concluded that the tumor interfered with the orbifrontal cortex which helps to regulate social behavior and likely exacerbated his pre-existing interest in pornography, and “manifesting sexual deviancy and pedophilia”.

Independent newspaper

This is a pretty wild story, but how do we reconcile this with our current way of treating criminals? In a hundred years from now, will we look back at our present day justice system and have the same repulsion as we do when we look back at the medical practice of bloodletting a hundred years ago?

How does this work in a religious context? If all our actions are biological, where does that leave free will/agency? How can one be judged for an action that was not freely taken? I guess in a Plan of Salvation sense, one could argue that God knows our heart, and in the example above would not hold the man accountable, even though he would have been excommunicated from the Mormon church.

Your thoughts?