The belief that altering the brain and its function can either lead to or ameliorate criminal tendencies has been around for a long time. It might date back thousands of years to when trepanning was used. Skulls found in Central America tend to point to the use of this technique by the Mayans and the Aztecs and some have postulated that it might’ve been done to treat madness or other behavioral abnormalities. Of course it could have been part of religious ritual also or even used for medical treatment after head injury. We just don’t know for sure.
Trepanning involves the drilling of holes through the skull
In the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in February, 1913, the case of a criminal who underwent surgery to correct his behavior was reported. It seems that a young man who was incarcerated for his criminal activity had been a normal child until approximately age 14 when he suffered a head injury. After that he became “morose, sullen and a thief.” Examination revealed that he had a “thickening underneath the scalp at the point where he had been injured.” Surgery was then performed to remove this section of bone and apparently his behavior immediately changed. It changed so much that the governor offered him parole and he was released.
Unfortunately, recidivism being what it is, he returned to his criminal ways and was again arrested. The article goes on to point out that during the Civil War there were many soldiers who suffered penetrating head wounds and yet only rarely did they suffer from “perversions of character.”
Indeed there have been cases where individuals have had brain tumors and their personality has changed dramatically, even to the point of violent acting out. In such circumstances removal of the brain tumor has often resulted in a resolution of the personality change. But the search for a surgical solution to social traffic behavior remains elusive and indeed there is no evidence that any procedure makes much difference. At least as far as we know in 2013. Who knows what the future will hold.
Perhaps the most famous use of a surgical technique to alter behavior comes from the fictional world. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the movie as well as the excellent book by Ken Kesey, is the story of McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a man who fights the system and is determined to be a threat to society, or at least the inner workings of the mental hospital where he is housed, and is ultimately subjected to a personality altering frontal lobotomy. The fact that this type of surgery was also going on in the real world is well-documented.