Charles Manson's Brain Probably Looked a Lot Like Yours

Charles Manson shown in the 1960s.
Serial killer and cult leader Charles Manson shown here in the 1960s. (Image credit: Michael Lee Montfort/Intertopics/Zuma)

Charles Manson, the cult leader who organized a series of nine murders in 1969, is dead. And a lot of people want scientists to poke around in his brain.

A lot of people — at least according to social media posts.

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That drive — to poke around in the grey matter of the celebrity killer with the swastika tattoo — is perhaps understandable. Charles Manson's unstable behavior, odd looks and proximity to Hollywood legend have elevated him in the public consciousness from run-of-the-mill murderous, conspiratorial racist on a power trip to a kind of countercultural antihero. Surely, the most infamous killer of the rock-and-roll generation must have some kind of weird-looking brain, right? [Top 10 Controversial Psychiatric Disorders]

But the fact is, researchers don't expect to find anything that unusual behind the walls of Manson's skull. (It's not even entirely clear that the contents of the man's cranium will be studied at all, according to an investigation by The National Post.)

Jens Foell, a neuropsychologist at Florida State University and expert in the relationship between the brain and behavior, told Live Science that while he believes Manson's brain is worth studying, he doesn't expect any surprising results.

"There are two different things you might expect to find [in Manson's brain]," Foell said. "One – the more obvious one — is if there is some reason to believe there is some sort of brain damage, a lesion or a tumor or something like that associated with violent behavior."

It's not unheard-of to find damage or disease in the brains of killers. In 1966, Charles Whitman, a student at the University of Texas, Austin, was suffering from depression. The sharpshooter and Marine veteran visited a school psychiatrist and complained of violent fantasies.

Then, just after midnight on Aug. 1 of that year, he murdered his mother, washed his hands, and wrote a note expressing regret for his actions. Then, he killed his wife, stabbing her five times.

"I love her dearly," he wrote, according to The Washington Post's account, "…I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this."

The next morning, Whitman loaded a heap of weapons and ammunition into a pushcart, took it by elevator to the top of the bell tower on the UT campus, and murdered 14 more people, wounding an additional 30 over the course of a two-hour shooting spree, before he was himself shot and killed. [The Top 10 Deadly Cults]

An autopsy revealed a tumor in Whitman's brain that was pressing on areas related to self-control — though the question whether that caused his killing spree remains a matter of debate among scientists.

Foell said there's no particular reason to expect to find a similar defect in Manson's brain, however, not least because a brain tumor would likely have been detected in the 40-plus years since his arrest.

"The other possibility," regarding Manson, Foell said, "is that you have a healthy brain that is different from other peoples', and [that difference] increases the possibility that people commit crimes. And that's where the situation becomes more complex and more murky."

When Foell looks for the neural mechanisms that lie behind violent behaviors, he doesn't look at one violent criminal at a time. If there was a killer who attacked three people on a golf course using sharpened hockey sticks, Foell said she wouldn't be able to point to a fold or nodule on that person's brain and say "Aha! This made him need to kill with misplaced sports equipment."

From the perspective of neuroscience, the really interesting data about a brain's shape and size is aggregate. If lots and lots of serial killers' brains have some particular abnormal shape in common, that's much more useful data than any one abnormality in the brain of an especially heinous killer, according to Foell.

Foell can make some educated guesses about what Manson's brain might look like. For example, the amygdala — a region of the brain involved in emotional control — would likely show signs of being a bit less active, when it was alive.

"If you were to do a test with an alive Charles Manson where you're showing pictures of people in pain or people in emotional situations in an MRI scanner," he said, "I would expect his amygdala to react less strongly to that."

Manson's dead brain would likely exhibit similar signs of an amygdala with far fewer connections to other parts of the brain than average. And Foell thinks it's worth studying, at least as one more data point in the larger picture of murderous brains.

But no matter what turns up, Foell doubts it would shed any shocking new light on the '69 murders. The physical structures of people's brains just don't vary enough to fully explain anyone's behavior.

"In a different environment and different context, the question is: Would he still have done the same thing?" he said. "I would say it was probably just an unusual confluence of both [Manson's] personality and also the circumstances of the time."

And even if a coroner did slice open Manson's skull and discover an atrophied amygdala with features seen in the brains of other murderers, neuroscientists couldn't be sure those wrinkles had been there back in 1969.

"One thing people forget is that everything you do changes your brain," Foell said. "This conversation, if you remember it, you remember it because firing patterns change in your brain."

Every nerve cell in the brain has an average of about 1,000 connections to its near and distant neighbors, Foell said. And those connections strengthen or disappear with every new situation a person encounters. That means that whatever particular spark in Manson's brain grew to consume the lives of his followers, their victims and the morbid curiosity of the nation, has been lost to the decades and that dark moment in Los Angeles history.

Originally published on Live Science.

Rafi Letzter
Staff Writer
Rafi joined Live Science in 2017. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of journalism. You can find his past science reporting at Inverse, Business Insider and Popular Science, and his past photojournalism on the Flash90 wire service and in the pages of The Courier Post of southern New Jersey.