Brain of the intellect vs. Brain of the serial killer

The cultural importance of harvesting some brains over others.

Posted Dec 10, 2012

Bundy and Einstein

Ted Bundy (left), Albert Einstein (right)

The post-mortem studies of Einstein’s brain recently re-appeared in the media (Huffington Post / NBC News / Fox News), and to be sure, the story of the physicist’s brain from when it was removed in 1955 by Thomas Harvey to its current state in many many pieces is fascinating. The drive behind this ongoing analysis is to no doubt find the neurological correlates of not just intelligence, but genius – and I mean this in the sense of profound thinker, because clearly genius could be applied to anyone with exceptional skills in the entire gamut of all human activity.

Like anyone interested in the great thinkers, I think the ongoing studies are amazing, and sure, as neuroscientific procedures become more sophisticated, there is no doubt we can learn more and more about what helps to shape the brain of an Einstein.

But what about the brain of a Bundy?

Ted Bundy was a serial killer from the Pacific Northwest who murdered at least thirty women, and after a rather chaotic flight across the country, was executed in Florida by the electric chair in 1989. There are at least two important notes about Bundy that would have made a study of his brain invaluable. Firstly, he was very good at what he did. Keppel, a detective who was instrumental in Bundy’s apprehension, writes of his intelligence and patience; qualities that helped him evade capture for years. And secondly, Bundy eventually told Keppel (during an interaction that was supposed to aid in the capture of the Green River Killer), the dark desires that led him to kidnap, murder and necrophilia, were like a chemical tidal wave washing through his brain, like an addiction to a narcotic.

These two important points about the behavioral characteristics of Bundy could very well have been reflected in his brain. Bundy had numerous psychological tests once he was apprehended, but the exact nature of his pathology is still unknown. The likely candidates, two conditions in this case that go hand in hand, are Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) and Psychopathy. To be sure, we know that people with these disorders have different brains – deficits have been found in the frontal cortex, the amygdala, and regions in between: And behaviorally, these are the people who rate highly on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, meaning that they do exhibit violent tendencies, have limited or frustrating emotional experiences, and have no conscience.

We would perhaps expect Bundy’s brain to demonstrate some of the neurological deficits mentioned above, but Bundy was more than a psychopath – he was a serial killer. Given that serial killers are only a minute fraction of the population and that when they are caught they are either executed or left to live out their lives in a maximum security penitentiary, access to their brain is very limited. In my opinion, this makes their brain even more academically valuable, and if access to the brain is denied it also denies any real neurobiological understanding of the serial killer brain - something that is perhaps as equally valuable as knowing what contributed to Einstein’s genius.

I do not think it would be difficult to persuade a serial killer to donate their brain to science after their death. If they are indeed psychopathic, then their ego could very well be coaxed into handing over "the center of their criminal genius" to researchers after death. In the interview conducted by Dr. James Dobson with Bundy, the day before his execution, it is not hard to imagine that his own intellectual curiosity and his ego would have turned his brain over to science. This interview can be found in parts on youtube.

Perhaps somebody could persuade the state of California and Richard Ramirez (the Nightstalker) to preserve Ramirez's brain for study after death, or Gary Ridgway (the Green River Killer) to give up his brain to science after he lives out his life? Or at the very least try to persuade them to be scanned using the whole array of sophisticated scanners that we have now at our disposal.

Copyright Jack Pemment 2012