The Texas Tower Sniper

BRAIN AREA: Temporal Lobe – Limbic System – Amygdala – Emotions

See Image 5

In the aftermath of a massacre by the Texas Tower Sniper, Charles Whitman, experts questioned how responsible he was for his actions. This dreadful event raised questions and concerns about how accountable someone is for a violent crime when they have a brain abnormality that may have contributed to their actions.

In 1966, American police killed Charles Whitman after he had murdered 16 people and shot 31 others. Whitman, a former US marine marksman and university student, had collected a small armoury of guns and taken over an observation deck at the top of a tower at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas.

In the years before this, Whitman had sought help for his worsening psychological state. The formerly intelligent student was failing his studies, gambling compulsively and experiencing violent emotional feelings. On 1 August 1966 Whitman started writing a note explaining his forthcoming actions, including a request that an autopsy be conducted on his brain 'to see if there is any visible physical disorder'. Then, after murdering his mother and his wife, he completed the note and went to purchase weapons and ammunition before heading to the University of Texas tower.

An autopsy conducted by neuropathologist Dr Chenar the day after the killings revealed a small tumour composed of glial cells located between the red nucleus at the top of the brainstem, and the underside of the thalamus (see Image 2). It would subsequently become generally accepted that the tumour was pressing on Whitman's amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotion and has also been implicated in psychopathy and many have concluded Whitman's actions were due to abnormal stimulation of his amygdala.

However, when considering the likelihood of Whitman's tumour pressing on his amygdala it is necessary to look at the relative positions of the amygdala, thalamus and red nucleus. The amygdala is located towards the front of the temporal lobe (see Image 5), some distance from the thalamus and the top of the brainstem (see Image 2). It is notable that Whitman's tumour was not pressing on the frontal cortex, as this was specifically addressed by Dr Chenar in his conclusion that the tumour had not affected Whitman's thoughts and actions.

It is also necessary to address the issue of attributing a complex series of events to a single brain abnormality, especially as in this particular case there were a number of issues causing Whitman a great deal of stress. Most notably his parents had recently separated and Whitman harboured strong feelings of resentment towards his domineering father. Some people have alleged Whitman committed the murders as a way of getting back at his father. However, we do not know the contents of a letter sent by Whitman to his father which was purported to include information about Whitman's motives. Furthermore, a commission tasked with examining the shootings may have been unwittingly biased (confirmation bias) in that they were looking for a physical or organic basis for Charles Whitman's killing spree.

References & further reading

Blair, J. (2003). Neurobiological basis of psychopathy. British Journal of Psychiatry, 182(1), 5–7.

Boccardi, M., Frisoni, G. B., Hare, R. D., Cavedo, E., Najt, P., Pievani, M., Rasser, P. E., Laakso, M. P., Aronen, H. J., Repo-Tiihonen, E., Vaurio, O., Thompson, P. M., & Tiihonen, J. (2011). Cortex and amygdala morphology in psychopathy. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 193(2), 85–92.

Eagleman, D. (2015). The brain: The story of you. Canongate.

Lavergne, G. M. (1997). A sniper in the tower: The Charles Whitman murders. University of North Texas Press.