Given the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence study on the use of torture by the CIA, I thought it would be useful to gather together previous pieces on this blog on torture, including reblogs from other places.
The following point can’t be emphasised enough: torture is a useless technique for extracting information from long-term memory, because imposing severe neuropsychiatric distress substantially impedes the functioning of the brain systems and subsystems concerned with storage and recall of memory (among many other consequences). There is no good reason to expect from cognitive neuroscience that the imposition of substantial sustained stressor states will have a positive effect on the brain systems supporting memory; quite the contrary is what should be expected. An honest appraisal of the evidence on torture will emphasise what Senator John McCain (who was tortured in Vietnam for five years) said:
“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence,” he said. “I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.”
Special issue of Zeitschrift für Psychologie on Torture, edited by Roland Weierstall, Thomas Elbert and Andreas Maercker. Twelve papers running from ethics to the treatment and assessment of torture survivors.
Papers (click on titles for the papers):
On the Imposition of Torture, an Extreme Stressor State, to Extract Information From Memory, S O’Mara, Zeitschrift für Psychologie/Journal of Psychology, 219, 2011, 159-166, DOI 10.1027/2151-2604/a000063
ABSTRACT: There is a widespread and popularly-held belief that the imposition of extreme stressor states (torture) is efficacious at facilitating the release of intentionally-withheld information from (human) memory. Here, I explore why this belief is so widespread. I examine the folk model of the brain and behavior that underpins this belief, and show that this folk model is utterly inconsistent with what we currently know about the effects of extreme stressor states on the brain systems that support memory and executive function. Scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests that subjecting individuals to such states is unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of what is intended by coercive or “enhanced” interrogation. Coercive interrogations involving imposition of extreme stressor states are unlikely to facilitate the release of veridical information from long-term memory, given our current cognitive neurobiological knowledge. On the contrary, these techniques cause severe, repeated, and prolonged stress, which compromises brain tissue supporting memory and executive function. The fact that the detrimental effects of these techniques on the brain are not visible to the naked eye makes them no less real.
Torturing the brain: on the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating ‘enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques’. S O’Mara, Trends Cogn Sci. 2009 Dec;13(12):497-500. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.09.001. Epub 2009 Sep 24.
ABSTRACT: On 16 April 2009, the US Department of Justice released legal memos detailing coercive interrogation techniques used with terrorism suspects during the Bush administration (http://www.aclu.org/safefree/general/olc_memos.html). The release of these documents has fuelled international controversy over the use of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (including torture) to extract information from terrorist suspects, despite strong ethical and legal objections. The use of such techniques appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect. Solid scientific evidence of how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests that these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced’ interrogation.
Originally posted on Mind Hacks:
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