Criminal Behaviors and Brain Abnormalities

Criminal Behaviors and Brain Abnormalities

Interpretations and perceptions of violent subject matters are commonly identified with negative connotations that typically consist of damaging and destructive behaviors. When we think about the concept of violence, we typically consider violence regarding physical aggression with the intent to forcibly inflict pain on others.

We are aware and informed of this violence in examining historical events as well as listening to current news incidents. The media and news reveal the detrimental effects of these violent events, while also implicitly raising a particular kind of awareness to the aggression associated with these unlawful behaviors.

This increased awareness has resulted in solely shedding light on violence as existing primarily within the context of historical and present-day news events, which continues to persist today. I would further argue that this increased awareness has shaped our discussions and understandings around issues of violence, ultimately skewing our perceptions. Acknowledging the existence of violence only within the context of the news disregards the other ways in which violence exists in our society.

In our society today, aggression is promoted both implicitly and explicitly within a variety of societal aspects including sports teams, video games, and the ways young adolescents are socialized. These specific ideas embody socially acceptable behaviors of aggression, which result in glorifying violence to a certain extent. How we understand violence in society directly relates to the implicit power that arises given the context of the socially acceptable violent behaviors.

On another note, this power also exists at the authoritative level in our country, enabling the U.S. justice system to manage and decide what constitutes as lawful behavior. I argue that the U.S. justice system also has the power to shape perceptions around violent behaviors, which create fine boundaries in understanding how to make sense of unlawful behaviors.

In Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, he notes that the key to understanding the underlying mechanisms of these social and cultural notions that revolve around violence requires a thorough examination of the context in a given situation, including internal and external factors (Sapolsky, 2017). Sapolsky challenges us to consider these notions from a large perspective, which will provide the necessary context that is required to critically and analytically think about issues of violence (Sapolsky, 2017).

In using Sapolsky’s framework for understanding contextual elements, I conclude two criticisms regarding the concepts of violence in our society. In my first point about understanding violence in relation to the news, our society has failed to clearly understand the existence of violence within other important contexts of society. Secondly, our country’s legal system fails to appropriately consider unlawful behaviors with respect to the situational elements in a given court case.

Some may argue that the U.S. criminal justice system serves to protect the nation, however, it is also important to note that many would disagree and claim that the justice system fails to fairly represent justice across all cases. It is fair to say that the U.S. justice system operates in a complex and complicated manner. More specifically, court cases revolving around criminal behavior and those who suffer from brain damage and mental illnesses creates an even more complicated legal situation. The implications of Sapolsky’s work around analyzing a multitude of aspects in a given context have allowed me to consider the complex functionalities within the justice system and investigate the legal procedures thoroughly.

Journalist Kevin Davis explores the issue of neuroscience and criminal activity in, “Why are lawyers using brain damage as a criminal defense? The science doesn’t support it”. He specifically discusses the prevalence of brain abnormalities within the context of criminal court cases (Davis, 2017). While brain neuroimaging methods are regarded as a reliable scientific measurement, Davis argues that these neuroimaging measurements cannot be used as evidence to associate brain abnormalities and criminal behavior (Davis, 2017). I have outlined the complexity of neuroscience and criminal activity, which is reflected in the case of Charles Whitman.

In 1966, Charles Whitman killed 14 people in Texas, including his wife and mother (Davis, 2017). Doctors examined Whitman’s brain using neuroimaging, which revealed a brain tumor between the thalamus and amygdala in Whitman’s brain (Davis, 2017). These important areas of the brain are responsible for relaying sensory information as well as regulating emotions (Breedlove & Watson, 2012). However, scientists have not been able to come to the conclusion that there is a correlation between brain abnormalities and criminal behavior (Davis, 2017).

Therefore, Whitman’s doctor concluded that the tumor was not directly responsible for his behavior (Davis, 2017). Consequently, during Whitman’s trial, it was concluded that he was not legally insane, and therefore, understood the implications of his actions (Davis, 2017).    Additionally, under the U.S. law, if individuals can understand right and wrong actions, they are held responsible for their actions. The assumption that Whitman knew what was right and what was wrong during the violent incident is unfair given the lack of knowledge medical experts know regarding the effects of brain abnormalities.

While further research is necessary, I find it unfair for the court to make this judgement based on research that is unknown. Therefore, I conclude that since there are many uncertainties about how brain tumors affect different areas of the brain, it is important to approach legal cases in a constructive and efficient manner with respect to context of the case.

The legal system follows strict laws and boundaries concerning criminal cases that require aspects of the case to fall under specific categories, which ultimately aid the court in making a decision. Connecting this to Sapolsky’s work, in his discussion of understanding behavior, he points out the disadvantages of “categorical thinking” (Sapolsky, 2017). Putting ideas and explanations in organized “buckets” can be helpful in drawing boundaries, but creating these boundaries separates key elements that need to be considered with regards to another (Sapolsky, 2017).

Rather than dissecting court case facts into buckets and attempting to make sense of them individually, I strongly believe the legal system would benefit if they considered specific case components more closely together. This may sound obvious, however, the current system continues to examine cases in a clearly cut defining manner, which cannot be applied to all criminal cases. Cases involving criminal behavior and brain abnormalities is beyond complicated. In order to improve the U.S. justice system, I suggest restructuring the current legal system, shifting the focus from punishment and incarceration to the treatment of individuals with brain damage.





Davis, Kevin. “Why Are Lawyers Using Brain Damage as a Criminal Defense? The Science Doesn’t Support It.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 3 May 2017,

Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. New York: Penguin Press.

Watson, N. V., & Breedlove, S. M. (2012). The mind’s machine: foundations of brain and behavior. Sinauer Associates.


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