The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior puts the most accurate and actionable neuroscience in the hands of judges, lawyers, policymakers and journalists—people who shape the standards and practices of our legal system and affect its impact on people’s lives. We work to make the legal system more effective and more just for all those affected by the law.

Do We Have Free Will?

Maybe you remember Charles Whitman, the man who shot and killed 13 people from the top of the University of Texas Tower in 1966 after murdering his wife and mother the day before.

He left a typed note in his home, which police found the day after the shootings. He said he had been overwhelmed recently with violent impulses and had no rational explanation for killing his wife or the others. He had even gone to see a psychiatrist and suspected that something had changed in his brain. He requested that an autopsy be conducted to find out.

He was right. He had a nickel-size tumor pressing on his amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotions such as aggression and fear and that, when damaged, causes social and emotional disturbances. Whitman’s crimes were likely a result of the damage being done to his brain by the tumor.

Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine who directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, sees Whitman’s story as only one of numerous instances in which criminal behaviors can be linked to conditions involving the brain. Moreover, stories like these push researchers – scientists, philosophers, theologians and others – to question a long-held belief about human beings that grounds our legal system and our notions of right and wrong: the belief in free will, or freedom of choice….


Source: Houston Chronicle, Sept. 13, 2012. By Jill Carroll.
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