I have a book due to appear (Autumn/Fall 2015) with Harvard University Press. My Editor is Ian Malcolm, who has been a wonderful help and great source of advice and sound judgement the whole way through. Lots of difficult terrain is navigated – ethical, instrumental, psychological, epistemological, physiological, deontological, neuropsychiatric and neuropsychological to name a few.
“One did not know what happened inside the Ministry of Love, but it was possible to guess: tortures, drugs, delicate instruments that registered your nervous reactions, gradual wearing-down by sleeplessness and solitude and persistent questioning.”
(George Orwell, 1984)
Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation
Torture is banned because it is cruel and inhumane. But as Shane O’Mara writes in this account of the human brain under stress, torture should never be condoned because it does not work the way torturers assume it does.
In countless films and TV shows such as Homeland and 24, torture is portrayed as a harsh necessity. If cruelty can extract secrets that will save lives, so be it. CIA officers and others conducted torture using precisely this justification. But does torture accomplish what its defenders say it does? For ethical reasons, there are no scientific studies of torture. But neuroscientists know a lot about how the brain reacts to fear, extreme heat and cold, starvation, thirst, sleep deprivation, and immersion in freezing water, all tools of the torturer’s trade. These stressors create profound problems for memory, mood, and thinking, and sufferers predictably produce information that is deeply unreliable—and, for intelligence purposes, even counter-productive. As O’Mara guides us through the neuroscience of suffering, he reveals the brain to be much more complex than the brute calculations of torturers have allowed, and he points the way to a humane approach to interrogation, founded in the science of brain and behavior.
Torture may be effective in forcing confessions, as in Stalin’s Russia. But if we want information that we can depend on to save lives, O’Mara writes, our model should be Napoleon: “It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile.”
Shane O’Mara is Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College, Dublin, and Director of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience.
More details to follow.
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