Chris Benoit: The Science of a Sick Mind

If you grew up on the east coast in the 1990’s, like I did, then nothing was bigger than ECW. Extreme Championship Wrestling had a massive influence on the young kids that fell in love with the business at the time. There were huge stars, and more importantly, it gave you the ability to see something different. Something brand new. It was during this time that I got my first look at Chris Benoit. And I became the biggest Chris Benoit fan I could be. I watched him all through WCW and into the WWE. It was there that I got to witness him winning the Heavyweight Title live at Wrestlemania XX. It’s where I got to meet him and get my photo taken with him. It was where, as a 20 year old super fan, I got to experience what it was like to witness magic

Three years after that moment, Chris Benoit’s life, and the life of his family, ended. As a fan, you are immediately overtaken by the emotion of what had happened that day. How could a hero do something so vile? How could someone who influenced you, to be a better person, done something that you can’t forget. He did something that, to this day, people who see pictures of him, or matches of his, get chills down their spine. It was very hard at the time to separate emotion from the facts. As someone who was a massive fan, it became necessary for me to find out why this happened. So I looked to the science.

It’s been seven years since that tragedy occurred and today we have much more clarity on the issue than we ever had before. The emotions have finally worn off, and we can look at Chris’ life and career not tainted by the love we had for his work, or the horror we had in the way his life ended. Benoit has been seen as some sort of monster, a form of pure evil. It’s time to let the science speak for itself, and prove that he wasn’t a monster, but a sick man. It is time that we as a society moved past the emotion, and relied on the science available to us to make a firm distinction. There was no “evil” inside Chris Benoit, just a very badly damaged mind; and perhaps, based on the science, Chris had no control over his actions that day because of the incredible amount of concussions he received in the ring.

There is very little doubt now that Chris Benoit’s life ended because of the brain damage he’d received and the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that followed it. In those final moments Chris’ brain no longer worked properly, and as a result he seemingly made choices that facilitated the end of his life and his family’s. The science is not completely settled on this, but it is becoming more and more apparent from the test being done on professional athletes that CTE is real and it is causing these athletes permanent loss of brain functions.  

But, more importantly, is the neuroscience of free will. Benjamin Libet, as physiology researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, has produced studies where subject’s brains were scanned during decision making process. The subjects were attached to electroencephalograms (EEG) to monitor neuronal activity in their cortex, the part of the brain associated with high cognition. Each subject would perform a task (pushing a button, flexing their wrist or finger) as many times as they wanted during a time frame. What they found was activity in the cortex before the decision was made. “The experimental findings led us to the conclusion that voluntary acts can be initiated by unconscious cerebral processes before conscious intention appears but that conscious control over the actual motor performance of the acts remains possible.”

What this means is that, during the process of making a decision, our brain reacts well before we do, in the effect of 800ms. This finding suggests that our brain makes the decision to act, before we do. We may have no free will at all, and perhaps might be at the mercy of our own brains process.

The absence of free will has been in philosophy for generations. It is an argument that has been had between all of the great thinkers throughout time. But Libet’s tests were the first scientific indications that it could be real. In 2008 Masao Matsuhahi, a neuroscience and physiology researcher from Kyoto University, and Mark Hallett, a senior investigator at the neuroscience published a study that claims to replicate Libet’s findings. Summarized they find that the time of the conscious intention to move normally occurred too late to be the cause of the movement. What this means, is that the brain was moving a finger, or flexing a wrist, before the conscious brain made the decision to.

Neuroscience has given us a brief look at what it means to have free will. Could it be, that because of Chris Benoit’s CTE, and how advanced he was, his brain was so badly damaged that his entire decision making process was completely wiped out? And if so, how does one now view the tragedy that was the end of his life?

The bigger question is this, does the view that Chris Benoit had absolutely no control in his death, and the death of his family, change how his career should be viewed? This is a moral question. And if you believe the science, then it is one that might be easier to answer. There is no such thing as good or evil according to the science. There are people that have brain dysfunctions and do not obey the rule of law. Those people need to be separated from society, because their brains do not function properly. But what we are talking about here is the art that one man produced stacked against the crimes he committed.

Today it has become very cool to embrace Chris Benoit. He has become wrestling’s Che Guevara. His history and work are not what people flock to on social media today; it is his controversial nature that brings him fame. But the sarcastic fame and emotion should be gone. What we should be left with is a man who did horrible thing because he was sick. He had no control over what he did. He had as much control over it as you have in swinging your arms when you walk. His brain did not work correctly any more

So, do we forgive the past, and now embrace the man we once watched for years and idolized? That’s not for me, or anyone else to moralize over. I think it’s time we put the context around the man’s career and his life. If you want to celebrate Chris Benoit’s art and ability in the ring, you can. You can look at him as a very sick man who had no control over his actions. But if you still think that he shouldn’t be celebrated because of the horrible conclusion to his and his family’s lives, then you are entitled to that view.

Because in the end, the science can tell us all we need to know, but it is still your judgment that needs to be made. If you believe in free will, or that our brains make the decisions for the vessel, it still comes down to feeling ok celebrating a man who did something horrible. That can be difficult for people to handle. And it is ok to admit it is difficult. That’s a part of life that we must struggle with daily, with the horrendous events that surround each of us daily. But what we must no longer do is shelter Chris Benoit out of the limelight and into a closet to be shunned as a monster. It is time to let the monster out of the closet and put the hard light of science and scrutiny on his life and brain. We must look at his career as the canary in the coal mine. Chris Benoit was the case that fixed an industry from its massive and secret concussion problem. It is time to start viewing Chris in his proper context; he was a very sick man, who committed a terrible act because of his sickness. He should return to the public conscious as a reminder of what went wrong.