The essay examines the work of Dr. Anneliese Pontius, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
For 15 years, Pontius
has been piecing together clues to understand the bizarre behavior of a young man, with a history of schizophrenia, who "returned home from a hitchhiking journey to find his
brother in the kitchen receiving lessons from a home instructor.
According to Pontius
, the crimes are the tragic result of "electrical storms"-or seizures-in a constellation of brain structures known collectively as the limbic system.
Normally, the limbic system, which mediates the basic drives of eating, sex and predation, is under the control of the ponderous frontal lobes.
The frontal lobes filter the impulses generated by the limbic system, okaying some, disallowing others.
However, during a seizure, the limbic system may shake loose from the frontal behemoth, essentially bypassing the "permission" of the normally dominant frontal lobes, resulting in an uncensored-and irrational-drive to kill.
believes that random, though highly specific, external stimuli-such as a meaningful photograph or library card, or a bodily movement, such as reaching into a pocket-revive old memories that in turn ignite the limbic storm.
They long for human contact," Pontius
says, adding that their social isolation prevented them from releasing old memories.
None had any reason to kill; many attacks, such as the fly-fishing case, were against total strangers in full view of witnesses.
All felt no emotion while committing their crimes.
"Like the animal who kills doesn't hate his
"Normally, the frontal lobe is very much in control to give us decent socialized behavior," she
What helps trigger the electrical storm, she
believes, is the abnormal social isolation of these people.
believes that although people who commit crimes as a result of limbic seizures are aware of what they are doing, they are not, in a legal sense, "responsible" for their actions.