Udayavni Special

BRAIN MATTERS: The curious case of Charles Whitman

Team Udayavani, Apr 5, 2018, 3:08 PM IST

Can our personality change completely because of a disease or injury to our brain? Can a person who is quiet and calm turn violent because of a pathological change in his brain?

The answer seems to be yes, our personality, actions and attitude can change due to changes happening in our brain due to a disease, injury or medication. This viewpoint is supported by the curious case of Charles Whitman.

On August 1, 1966, after slaying his mother and his wife with a knife, 25-year-old Charles Whitman, a former US Marine took an elevator to the 28th-floor observation deck of the University of Texas in Austin. Over next 90 minutes, he fired at the people in the campus and nearby streets indiscriminately using a hunting rifle and other weapons killing 16 people and injuring 33 others. The entire episode came to an end when a policeman and a civilian reached Whitman and shot him dead. This attack is ranked as one of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

What surprised the Police about this mindless act of violent behaviour, was lack of any compelling motive to undertake such a deadly attack. On investigating his background, police found that Charles Whitman didn’t have any criminal background or history of violent behaviour till then. He was an Eagle Scout (Highest ranking in the Boy Scouting program of the Boy Scouts of America), a former US Marine, was employed as a Bank Teller and was an Engineering Student.

Charles Whitman did write a suicide note, a day before i.e. July 31, 1966, which read:

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……….

In his note, he requested an autopsy be performed on his body after he was dead, to determine if there had been a visible biological cause for his actions. Charles Whitman’s last wish was granted; autopsy did reveal that Whitman had a very small brain tumour, which was pressing against a part of his brain called amygdala which regulates emotions including fear and aggression traits.

Some of the medical professionals firmly believe that the pressure on amygdala caused Charles Whitman to act violently, which otherwise was not his natural trait.

This curious case of Charles Whitman proves a very important point that who we are, largely depends on what our brain is up to.

– Prakash Prabhu
[ Mr.Prakash Prabhu works for The Manipal Group as a Senior HR Manager with over 15 years of corporate experience. He has been the lead writer and contributor to CHIRP magazine.(An intra-Manipal group monthly employee magazine) An avid reader who devours one book after another, Mr.Prabhu is also a certified handwriting analyst.]

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