No Comment — September 22, 2009, 3:08 pm

Torture Doesn’t Work, Neurobiologist Says

Advocates often portray torture, like waterboarding, as black magic that quickly enables the interrogator to break through his subject’s defenses and force him to divulge the location of the bomb that will destroy Los Angeles. But what does the scientific literature say? A 2006 Intelligence Science Board flatly noted that there was no data supporting the claim that torture produces reliable results. The 372-page report would be summed up by this passage: “The scientific community has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information. In essence, there seems to be an unsubstantiated assumption that ‘compliance’ carries the same connotation as ‘meaningful cooperation.’ ” In other words, waterboard someone or smack his head against the wall, and sure enough, he’ll open up and talk. But does that mean you’ll get reliable info that you couldn’t have gotten using more conventional techniques? Absolutely not. Dick Cheney insisted that two CIA analytical reports (that he apparently pressed to have prepared) concluded that his torture techniques rendered positive results. But these reports were declassified and published, and lo, they don’t say what he claimed they do.

Now another important contribution to the scientific literature has appeared. Irish neurobiologist Shane O’Mara of Trinity College Dublin, writing in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, takes a special look at the Bush Administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques:

the use of such techniques appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect. Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced’ interrogation.

Newsweek’s Sharon Begley summarizes O’Mara’s analysis:

So let’s break this down anatomically. Fact One: To recall information stored in the brain, you must activate a number of areas, especially the prefrontal cortex (site of intentionality) and hippocampus (the door to long-term memory storage). Fact Two: Stress such as that caused by torture releases the hormone cortisol, which can impair cognitive function, including that of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Studies in which soldiers were subjected to stress in the form of food and sleep deprivation have found that it impaired their ability to recall personal memories and information, as this 2006 study reported. “Studies of extreme stress with Special Forces Soldiers have found that recall of previously-learned information was impaired after stress occurred,” notes O’Mara. “Water-boarding in particular is an extreme stressor and has the potential to elicit widespread stress-induced changes in the brain.”

Stress also releases catecholamines such as noradrenaline, which can enlarge the amygdale (structures involved in the processing of fear), also impairing memory and the ability to distinguish a true memory from a false or implanted one. Brain imaging of torture victims, as in this study, suggest why: torture triggers abnormal patterns of activation in the frontal and temporal lobes, impairing memory. Rather than a question triggering a (relatively) simple pattern of brain activation that leads to the stored memory of information that can answer the question, the question stimulates memories almost chaotically, without regard to their truthfulness. These neurochemical effects set the stage for two serious pitfalls of interrogation under torture, argues O’Mara. The first is that “information presented by the captor to elicit responses during interrogation may inadvertently become part of the suspect’s memory, especially since suspects are under extreme stress and are required to tell and retell the same events which may have happened over a period of years.” As a result, information produced by the suspect may parrot or embellish suggestions from the interrogators rather than revealing something both truthful and unknown to the interrogators. Second, cortisol-induced damage to the prefrontal cortex can cause confabulation, or false memories. Because a person being tortured loses the ability to distinguish between true and false memories, as a 2008 study showed, further pain and stress does not cause him to tell the truth, but to retreat further into a fog where he cannot tell true from false.

There is another factor that casts doubt on the reliability of statements made by a torture subject. O’Mara puts it simply: “while I’m talking, I’m not being water-boarded.” It’s a sort of Pavlovian conditioning—if I talk, the torture will stop. Such circumstances virtually guarantee that a subject will talk. They just don’t make it more likely that he will tell the truth. In fact, just the opposite. “To briefly summarize a vast, complex literature: prolonged and extreme stress inhibits the biological processes believed to support memory in the brain,” writes the Irish scholar. “Coercive interrogations involving extreme stress are unlikely, given our current cognitive neurobiological knowledge, to facilitate the release of veridical information from long-term memory.” Let’s translate that: torture tends to make the information provided less reliable.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2019

Where Our New World Begins

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Truce

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Lost at Sea

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Unexpected

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Where Our New World Begins·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The river “flows up the map,” they used to say, first south, then west, and then north, and through some of the most verdant and beautiful country in America. It is called the Tennessee, but it drains some forty thousand square miles of land in seven states, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Alabama, and from Mississippi to the Ohio River, an area nearly the size of En­gland.

Before the 1930s, it ran wild, threatening each spring to flood and wash away the humble farms and homes along its banks. Most of it was not navigable for any distance, thanks to “an obstructive fist thrust up by God or Devil”—as the writer George Fort Milton characterized it—that created a long, untamed run of rapids known as Muscle Shoals. The fist dropped the river 140 feet over the course of 30 miles, and therein lay the untapped potential of the Tennessee, the chance to make power—a lot of it—out of water.

Article
Slash Fictions·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1. As closing time at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery approached on May 25, 2018, Igor Podporin, a balding thirty-seven-year-old with sunken eyes, circled the Russian history room. The elderly museum attendees shooed him toward the exit, but Podporin paused by a staircase, turned, and rushed back toward the Russian painter Ilya Repin’s 1885 work Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581. He picked up a large metal pole—part of a barrier meant to keep viewers at a distance—and smashed the painting’s protective glass, landing three more strikes across Ivan’s son’s torso before guards managed to subdue him. Initially, police presented Podporin’s attack as an alcohol-fueled outburst and released a video confession in which he admitted to having knocked back two shots of vodka in the museum cafeteria beforehand. But when Podporin entered court four days later, dressed in the same black Columbia fleece, turquoise T-shirt, and navy-blue cargo pants he had been arrested in, he offered a different explanation for the attack. The painting, Podporin declared, was a “lie.” With that accusation, he thrust himself into a centuries-old debate about the legacy of Russia’s first tsar, a debate that has reignited during Vladimir Putin’s reign. The dispute boils down to one deceptively simple question: Was Ivan really so terrible?

Article
The Truce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I met Raúl Mijango, in a courtroom in San Salvador, he was in shackles, awaiting trial. He was paunchier than in the photos I’d seen of him, bloated from diabetes, and his previously salt-and-pepper goatee had turned fully white. The masked guard who was escorting him stood nearby, and national news cameras filmed us from afar. Despite facing the possibility of a long prison sentence, Mijango seemed relaxed, smiling easily as we spoke. “Bolívar, Fidel, Gandhi, and Mandela have also passed through this school,” he told me, “and I hope that some of what they learned during their years in prison we should learn as well.”

Post
Civic Virtues·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Green-Wood Cemetery, where objectionable statues are laid to rest

Article
Lost at Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A few miles north of San Francisco, off the coast of Sausalito, is Richardson Bay, a saltwater estuary where roughly one hundred people live out of sight from the world. Known as anchor-outs, they make their homes a quarter mile from the shore, on abandoned and unseaworthy vessels, doing their best, with little or no money, to survive. Life is not easy. There is always a storm on the way, one that might capsize their boats and consign their belongings to the bottom of the bay. But when the water is calm and the harbormaster is away, the anchor-­outs call their world Shangri-lito. They row from one boat to the next, repairing their homes with salvaged scrap wood and trading the herbs and vegetables they’ve grown in ten-gallon buckets on their decks. If a breeze is blowing, the air fills with the clamoring of jib hanks. Otherwise, save for a passing motorboat or a moment of distant chatter, there is only the sound of the birds: the sparrows that hop along the wreckage of catamarans, the egrets that hunt herring in the eelgrass, and the terns that circle in the sky above.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Cairo, New York, police department advised drivers to “overcome the fear” after a woman crashed her car when she saw a spider.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today