Charles Whitman:

The Amygdala & Mass Murder

Rhawn Gabriel Joseph, Ph.D.


Initially, electrical stimulation of the amygdala produces sustained attention and orienting reactions. If the stimulation continues the subject may begin to experience, wariness, fear and/or rage (Cendes et al. 1994; Davis et al., 1997; Gloor 1992; Halgren 1992; LeDoux, 1996; Rosen & Schulkin, 1998; Ursin & Kaada, 1960). When fear follows the attention response, the pupils dilate and the subject will cringe, withdraw, and cower. This cowering reaction in turn may give way to extreme fear and/or panic such that the animal will attempt to take flight.

Among humans, the fear response is one of the most common manifestations of amygdaloid electrical stimulation and abnormal activation (Davis et al., 1997; Gloor, 1992, Halgren, 1992; LeDoux, 1996; Rosen & Schulkin, 1998). Moreover, unlike hypothalamic on/off emotional reactions, attention and fear reactions can last up to several minutes after the stimulation is withdrawn.

In addition to behavioral manifestations of heightened emotionality, amygdaloid stimulation can result in intense changes in emotional facial expression. This includes crying and facial contortions such as baring of the teeth, dilation of the pupils, widening or narrowing of the eye-lids, flaring of the nostrils, as well as sniffing, licking, and chewing (Anand & Dua, 1955; Ursin & Kaada, 1960). Indeed, some of the behavioral manifestations of a seizure in this vicinity (i.e. temporal lobe epilepsy) typically include throat and mouth movements, including chewing, smacking of the lips, licking, and swallowing--a consequence, perhaps of amygdala activation of the brainstem periaqueductal gray and nuclei subserving mastication.

In many instances patients or animals will react defensively and with anger, irritation, and rage which seems to gradually build up until finally the animal or human will attack (Egger & Flynn, 1963; Gunne & Lewander, 1966; Mark et al., 1972 Ursin & Kaada, 1960; Zbrozyna, 1963). Unlike hypothalamic "sham rage", amygdaloid activation results in attacks directed at something real, or, in the absence of an actual stimulus, at something imaginary. There have been reported instances of patient's suddenly lashing out and even attempting to attack those close by, while in the midst of a temporal lobe seizure (Saint-Hilaire et al., 1980), and/or attacking, kicking, and destroying furniture and other objects (Ashford et al., 1980).

Moreover, rage and attack will persist well beyond the termination of the electrical stimulation of the amygdala. In fact, the amygdala remains electrophysiologically active for long time periods even after a stimulus has been removed (be it external-perceptual, or internal-electrical) such that is appears to continue to process--in the abstract--information even when that information is no longer observable (O'Keefe & Bouma, 1969).

The amygdala, in addition to sustained electrophysiological activity, has been shown to be heavily involved in the maintenance of behavioral responsiveness even in the absence of an immediately tangible or visible objective or stimulus (O'Keefe & Bouma, 1969). This includes motivating the organism to engage in the seeking of hidden objects or continuing a certain activity in anticipation of achieving some particular long term goal. At a more immediate level, the amygdala is probably very important in object permanence (i.e. the keeping of an object in mind when it is no longer visible) and concrete or abstract anticipation. Anticipation is, of course, very important in the prolongation of emotional states such as fear or anger, as well as the generation of more complex emotions such as anxiety. In this regard, the amygdala is probably important not only in regard to emotion, but in the maintenance of mood states.

Fear and rage reactions have also been triggered in humans following depth electrode stimulation of the amygdala (Chapman, 1960; Chapman et al., 1954; Heath et al. 1955; Mark et al. 1972). Mark et al. (1972) describe one female patient who following amygdaloid stimulation became irritable and angry, and then enraged. Her lips retracted, there was extreme facial grimmacing, threatening behavior, and then rage and attack--all of which persisted well beyond stimulus termination.

Similarly, Schiff et al. (1982) describe a man who developed intractable aggression following a head injury and damage (determined via depth electrode) to the amygdala (i.e. abnormal electrical activity). Subsequently, he became easily enraged, sexually preoccupied (although sexually hypoactive), and developed hyper-religiosity and psuedo-mystical ideas. Tumors invading the amygdala have been reported to trigger rage attacks (Sweet et al. 1960; Vonderache, 1940).

The amygdala appears capable of not only triggering and steering hypothalamic activity but acting on higher level neocortical processes so that individuals form emotional ideas . Indeed, the amygdala is able to overwhelm the neocortex and the rest of the brain so so that the person not only forms emotional ideas but responds to them, sometimes with vicious, horrifying results. A famous example of this is Charles Whitman, who in 1966 climbed a tower at the University of Texas and began to indiscriminately kill people with a rifle (Whitman Case File # M968150. Austin Police Department, Texas, The Texas Department of Public Safety, File #4-38).

Case Study in Amygdala-Aggression: Charles Whitman

Charles Whitman was born on June 24, 1941 and even before entering grade school had shown exceptional intellectual promise, was well liked by neighbors and had already shown some mastery of the piano, which he "loved to play." At the age of six he was administered the Stanford Binet tests of intellectual ability and obtained an IQ of 138; thus scoring at the 99.9% rank. He also became enamored by guns; his father being described as a gun fanatic. According to his father, "Charlie could plug a squirrel in the eye by the time he was sixteen." However, Charlie loved animals, was somewhat religiously oriented as a child, was very athletic, was described as "handsome" and "fun" and "high spirited" and was in many respects the "all American boy." He became an Eagle Scout at age 12, and receiving national recognition as being the youngest Eagle Scout in the world. Within 15 months he had earned 21 merit badges. While in high school he continued these activities, also pitching for the baseball team and managing the football team. After high school he joined the Marines and was described as "the kind of guy you would want around if you went into combat."

It was while in the Marines that he got married, and it was during this period that began to show the first subtle signs that something might be amiss.

He began having occasional bursts of anger. He threatened to "kick the teeth out" of another Marine, was court marshaled, consigned to the brig for 30 days, and reduced in rank. He also began taking copious notes, and developed what is referred to as "hypergraphia" excessive writing--a disturbance associated with the amygdala (Joseph, 1999b).

Incessantly he began to write and leave himself notes, ranging from the mundane, to the tremendous love he felt for his wife. "Received a call from Kathy... it was fabulous, she sounds so wonderful. I love her so much... I will love her to the day I die. She is the best thing I have in life. My Most Precious Possession."

Increasingly, however, he was having trouble with his temper and composed notes offering self-advice as to how to control his growing temper and rage attacks. "CONTROL your anger" he wrote, "Don't let it prove you the fool. SMILE--Its contagious. DON'T be belligerent. STOP cursing. CONTROL your passion; DON'T LET IT lead YOU."

On February 4, 1964, he purchased a diary. According to Charles: "I opened this diary of my daily events as a result of the peace of mind or release of feelings that I experienced when I started making notes of my daily events...."

Nevertheless, he also continued to excel and although he had been Court marshaled, he also won a scholarship to attend the University of Texas and to attend classes while still in the Marines. He also became increasingly religious and would often have discussions with his school mates about the nature of God--hyperreligiousness also being associated with an abnormality involving the amygdala (see chapter 9). And, although he was attending classes, he also began to perform volunteer work, while simultaneously holding a part time job, and at times felt overwhelmed with energy, almost manic--mania also being associated with the amygdala (Strakowski et al., 1999) as well as the frontal lobes (Joseph, 1986a, 1988a, 1999a). And, he continued to be well liked and admired. His supervisor at the bank, E. R. Hendricks, described Charles "as a truly outstanding person. Very likieable. Neat. Nice looking... A great guy."

However, Charles also began suffering terrible headaches, and one day lost his temper in class, pulling a male student bodily from his chair and tossing him from the classroom. Apparently he felt considerable remorse. He also continued to have frequent bouts of anger and on occasion, difficulty concentrating, and was beginning to over eat--increased food consumption being associated with a disturbance of the hypothalamus. Moreover, he began having periods where he couldn't sleep for days at a time--yet another disturbance associated with the hypothalamus, a major sleep center. Charles also realized that something was wrong, and continued writing copious notes to himself, reminding himself to be nice, to control his appetitite, and especially to control temper. But his temper was getting out of control and Charles was gaining weight.

A close friend, Elaine Fuess, also noticed that something was amiss. "Even when he looked perfectly normal, he gave you the feeling of trying to control something in himself. He knew he had a temper, and he hated this in himself. He hated the idea of cruelty in himself and tried to suppress it."

Charles Whitman finally sought professional help and consulted a staff psychiatrist, at the University of Texas Health Center about his periodic and uncontrollable violent impulses. Charles was referred to Dr. Heatly. According to the report written by Dr. Heatly about his session with Whitman, a report which was distributed to the media: "This massive, muscular youth seemed to be oozing with hostility as he initiated the hour with the statement that something was happening to him and he didn't seem to be himself...." Whitman "could talk for long periods of time and develop overt hostility while talking, and then during the same narration show signs of weeping.... Past history revealed a youth who... grew up in Florida where his father was a very successful plumbing contractor... who achieved considerable wealth. He identified his father as being brutal, domineering, and extremely demanding of the other three members of the family." Whitman "married four or five years ago, and served a hitch in the Marines.... He referred to several commendable achievements during his Marine service, but also made reference to a court martial for fighting which resulted in being reduced several grades to private. In spite of this he received a scholarship to attend the University for two years and remained a Marine at the same time... He expressed himself as being very fond of his wife, but admitted that he had on two occasions assaulted his wife physically. He said he has made an intense effort to avoid losing his temper with her... His real concern is with himself at the present moment. He readily admits having overwhelming periods of hostility with a very minimum of provocation... he... also... made vivid reference to thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people. ....He was told to make an appointment for the same day next week."

Instead, Charles apparently decided to climb the tower and to begin killing people. But not before first contacting the police and asking to be arrested. As Charles had not committed a crime, the desk sergeant instead suggested that he see a psychiatrist.

Several days prior to climbing the tower, Charles Whitman wrote himself a letter:

"I don't quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter.... I don't really understand myself these days... Lately I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate. I consulted Dr. Cochrum at the University Health Center and asked him to recommend someone that I could consult with about some psychiatric disorders I felt I had.... I talked to a doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt overcome by overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail. After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed to see if there is any visible physical disorder. I have had tremendous headaches in the past and have consumed two large bottles of Excedrin in the past three months."

On August 1, 1966, one day before climbing the tower at the University of Texas, Charles Whitman paid a visit to his mother, who greeted him outside her penthouse and introduced him to the night watchman who noticed that Charles was carrying a big black attache case. According to police reports, Charles must have immediately attacked his mother after they entered the penthouse, and then brutally beat, strangled, and stabbed her to death, crushing the back of her head, smashing her hands, and stabbing her in the chest with a huge hunting knife.

Later, neighbors told police that the only sounds they heard were that of a "child crying and whimpering," which they found puzzling as no child lived in the penthouse.

After brutally murdering his mother, Charles cleaned up the mess, and placed her in bed with a notepad laying across and covering up the massive wound in her chest. Charles had left a note. It read: "To Whom It May Concern: I have just taken my mother's life. I am very upset over having done it. However, I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now... I am truly sorry... Let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart."

After killing his mother, Charles returned home, planning on killing his wife "as painlessly as possible.," as he explained in yet another note:

"It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight....I love her dearly, and she has been a fine wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this..."

Apparently she was sleeping, and after removing the blankets to expose her nude body, he viciously stabbed her repeatedly with his huge hunting knife, leaving five gaping holes in her chest. She died instantly.

Charles wrote another note which he left with the body: "I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job... If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts... donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type."

And then he added a post script beneath his signature: "Give our dog to my in-laws. Tell them Kathy loved "Schoci" very much."

The next morning Charles Whitman climbed the University tower carrying several guns, a sawed off shotgun, and a high powered hunting rifle, and for the next 90 minutes he shot at everything that moved, killing 14, wounding 38.

Post-mortem autopsy of his brain revealed a glioblastoma multiforme tumor the size of a walnut, erupting from beneath the thalamus, impacting the hypothalamus, extending into the temporal lobe and compressing the amygdaloid nucleus (Charles J. Whitman Catastrophe, Medical Aspects. Report to Governor, 9/8/66).

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