I’m writing a new mystery book called, The Amygdala Hijack. It refers to a psychological condition. Some legal scholars think it should be used in the mental illness insanity defense. What the heck is an amygdala hijack?
For 150 years, courts have recognized that people who have a significant mental illness may be found not guilty of a crime—even it they did the crime. The Amygdala Hijack is a term psychologists use for an activity in the brain where it goes “haywire.” Each of us has two parts (and more, of course!) to our brains. They’re called the neocortex and the amygdala. The neocortex is the thinking, rational part that over rides the primitive, impulsive part called the amygdala. We need both because in times of danger, the amygdala fires and tells us to run! In other situations, where we may be tempted, at first. to violence the neocortex acts. It tells us to “think before acting.” See this article in Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/51483/handling-the-hijack.pdf
However, for people who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, the brain is slightly jumbled. PTSD means the person has experienced a traumatic incident that scarred them. It’s so bad they continue to re-live the situation. Even in the absence of an actual threat. The person’s brain sees the threat while the amygdala fires to warn the body. It fires so fast that it “hijacks” the neocortex so the brain/body act impulsively as if the threat were real.
So far, there aren’t any states that accept the amygdala hijack as a defense. But PTSD was tried during the 1980s. Particularly for Vietnam vets and the Battered Woman Syndrome, lawyers attempted to convince courts to allow the defense.
The weirdest case was the “Twinkie” defense. The accused was found not guilty because he’d eaten dozens of Twinkies right before the crime. He was so full of sugar his brain malfunctioned. Of course, this happened in a California court—no one else agrees with it.
But there is a lot of legitimate research and psychological experts that say our legal system is long over-due for an up date into the 21st Century regarding mental illness.
What do you think? Should we open the doors to the use of these mental illness defenses?
In my own research for the new book, I created a character who is accused of killing his wife. The defense lawyer, Ted Rohrbacher, wants to try the amygdala hijack as a defense. The prosecutor fights him every inch of the way. There’s another problem, too. No one can find the wife’s body. So, can the husband be found guilty of murder if there’s no body to prove she died? Even if he did kill her, can he get off because his brain was hijacked by the amygdala?
The book’s coming out soon! I’ll let you know when.