Brain Study Shows Torture Doesn't Work

In Newsweek, a report of a study showing torture can actually impair a person's ability to tell the truth.

[N]eurobiologist Shane O'Mara of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin explains in a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science called "Torturing the Brain," "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."

Some of the nitty-gritty:

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. "

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  • Display: Sort:
    Torture - nothing to do with information, (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by pluege on Mon Sep 21, 2009 at 09:28:04 PM EST
    everything to do with sadism.

    Silly and irrelevant "science" (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by Jacob Freeze on Mon Sep 21, 2009 at 09:56:12 PM EST
    What if torture produced good information? Would that make it okay?

    Anyone who makes torture a question of efficiency has already conceded most of the argument, and now if this absurd non-research is undermined, proponents of torture come out ahead.

    And it's easy enough to undermine this junk!

    The Panel of Experts of Ireland's Chief Scientific Adviser... and isn't that a grand title for an ad hoc committee of "experts" with no experience of torture on one side or the other...

    These experts with no experience pretend that a small deficit in long-term memory is likely to erase a memory like...

    Where did I hide the bomb?

    Golly, the last time you waterboarded me, I forgot where I hid the bomb, so now I have to make something up!

    At this level of "science," it's all just fuzzy words, one memory is just like another, and apparently nobody within miles of this bogus project was perspicacious enough to ask...

    What kind of memories does stress impair?

    Are they like the name of your wife? Or where Abdul hid the bomb?

    Or more like... what color shoes was Abdul wearing when he hid the bomb?

    So now we have an "argument" against torture that anybody who ever critiqued a psychological experiment could demolish in one second, and isn't that helpful to Dick Cheney and nobody else?

    Torture is evil, and any "argument" about its efficiency is just a silly distraction.

    Just what I was thinking (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by gyrfalcon on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 01:13:59 AM EST
    Well said.

    What the interrogators want from you (none / 0) (#10)
    by ding7777 on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 06:48:39 AM EST
    is the collateral information (what color shoes was Abdul wearing) that this study tries to prove is unreliable.

    The paper (5.00 / 3) (#8)
    by JamesTX on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 01:32:53 AM EST
    isn't saying torture doesn't work. It says pain and stress impair cognitive function and memory (who would have guessed it?).

    There may be some situations where the issue is not so much accuracy or availability of weak memories or clear thinking. If some diabolical CIA agent or hate-crazed soldier who has been electrocuting me for an hour and is threatening to nail parts of my anatomy to the table if I don't tell him where I was born, then it may well work. If said animal is trying to get me to tell him what I had for lunch two weeks ago Friday, it may actually work against his purported goal. That is, if the information sought is not easily remembered by the victim, then pain isn't going to make the memory easier to pull up. If the victim knows clearly what the psychopath wants, then the issue of impairment is not so critical.

    I suspect torture sometimes "works", depending on what "works" means, and depending on what is trying to be accomplished.

    What I loathe and condemn is the use of my science to even entertain questions of this nature, pro or con, other than to perhaps explain what type of cognitive deficit leads to the loss of capacity for moral reasoning which results in a human being coming to the conclusion that the "effectiveness" of torture is relevant to our national policy. Torture is evil. It is wrong. It doesn't matter whether it works or not. And to entertain questions of this nature simply strengthens the frames of that portion of our population who have lost their ties to humanity.

    i think i may spend a night (5.00 / 2) (#9)
    by cpinva on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 02:57:08 AM EST
    in a hot tub, naked, with pamela anderson. that i think it, no matter how hard, doesn't make it so.

    Torture Has been around for several millenia, so someone out there must think it works.

    as noted above, the death penalty has been around for millenia. so far, it hasn't stopped murders from being committed. if that's your basis for legitimizing conduct, you need to go back to logic 101.

    torture is wrong, period. effectivness isn't even an issue for discussion.

    Works for who? (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by mmc9431 on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 08:31:29 AM EST
    The Republican's have shown torture does work. It doesn't work on the victim. It doesn't produce reliable information. It also doesn't act as a deterrent.

    It does work as a propaganda tool to fire up their base. They've managed to defend the undefendable as some noble cause.

    When the Soviet Union used hidden cameras, wiretapping and torture, American's everywhere were appalled. Flag waving politician across the country condemned these actions as Unamerican. The KGB was the symbol of everything we weren't.

    The fact that this even continues to be a topic of debate in this country shows just how far we've regressed as a nation of principles.

    Torture goes against every aspect of what is supposed to be the "American Way". There's no way to candy coat it, rename it as enhanced interrogation or try to redefine it that will change that fact.

    Depends what you mean by "work"... (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by kdog on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 08:46:25 AM EST
    works like a charm at eroding liberty and fostering a police state...is that the goal?

    Totally agree (none / 0) (#17)
    by mmc9431 on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 09:09:51 AM EST
    Republican's have been using the fear card to control the population since the 1950's, with the communist witch hunts. I don't think they'll change any time soon. It's the same song, just a different boogey man.

    This holds up to a lot of the current research (5.00 / 2) (#16)
    by Militarytracy on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 08:57:55 AM EST
    my husband has been studying in order to be a better flight school teacher.  When someone is frightened the neuropathways involved in fight or flight prevent access to memory and details.  Fear is the worst way to teach someone anything too.

    Imagine the effects... (5.00 / 0) (#25)
    by Dadler on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 12:00:04 PM EST
    ...on the rest of the body when the mind is so anguished and wounded on all levels, conscious and sub.

    Oh come on. (none / 0) (#3)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Mon Sep 21, 2009 at 10:54:15 PM EST
    And there're studies that shows that bite-mark identification and eye-witness testimony is solid. And studies that show just the opposite.

    Let's face it, for some, fear and/or discomfort and/or pain will make them 'fess up right quick.

    And for others, just the opposite.

    And for others still, some mix or blend of the two.

    It's all a bunch of BS anyway, since there is no universally accepted definition of torture.

    Oh please. (5.00 / 1) (#18)
    by lilburro on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 09:13:44 AM EST
    You ever hear of these?  Or how about this?

    From the article:

    "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."

    And yeah, I think water-boarding falls under torture.

    But your comment does point to the need for prosecutions of Bushco.  Because now we have people saying "there is no definition of torture" when there absolutely is, and that can and should be reinforced and determined in the court system.


    Oy. You don't get it. (none / 0) (#22)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 11:18:49 AM EST
    Did I miss some very, very dry (5.00 / 1) (#24)
    by lilburro on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 11:27:04 AM EST

    Because "there is no universally accepted definition of torture" is simply not true.


    Thanks for the info. You got a point? (none / 0) (#21)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 11:13:50 AM EST
    Torture (none / 0) (#4)
    by Patrick on Mon Sep 21, 2009 at 10:59:20 PM EST
    Has been around for several millenia, so someone out there must think it works.  

    Absolutely. (5.00 / 6) (#12)
    by Fabian on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 08:07:38 AM EST
    If you want someone to confess to something, so that you can imprison them or execute them - torture is very effective.  Torture is also very effective in terrorizing people.  The governments where torture was/is common often executed people by the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands - after they confessed to crimes against the state.  Torture is very good at getting people to say whatever you want them to say.

    If you want accurate, actionable intelligence then torture is waste of time.  If you want to know where the bomb is, then go look for the bomb, use telephone records, credit card records, car rentals, paper trails, shoe leather.  


    Without getting into an argument (none / 0) (#19)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 10:43:37 AM EST
    over what is, or is not, torture....

    All information received is vetted for accuracy, regardless of how it was obtained. And all information can be checked, to one degree or the other, for accuracy. Its use is then governed by that.

    What we have here is a study designed to get published because it pushes a politically correct position. That is enough for me to consider it invalid.


    "Vetted for accuracy" (5.00 / 0) (#36)
    by jondee on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 04:34:03 PM EST
    ie: by torturing MORE people if necessary.

    And, if it turns out to be "inaccurate", too bad for all the torture recipients.


    Why not use the information (none / 0) (#26)
    by Fabian on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 12:14:26 PM EST
    that you know has the highest probability of being accurate instead of generating information that accumulated experience and evidence shows is often unreliable and inaccurate?

    Torture, no matter how you define it, is simply bad science.  The only thing it has been proven to do is to get people to say whatever they think will stop the process.


    First of all (2.00 / 0) (#27)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 01:31:26 PM EST
    torture is not science and neither is the study this post refers to.

    As far as reliable, how much faith would you be willing to give to information volunteered by a captured terrorist??

    Your premise is false. The logical thing is to not believe anything a terrorist prisoner tells you until you have developed some factual evidence that he/she is telling the truth.


    The logical thing to do (5.00 / 0) (#28)
    by Fabian on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 01:54:25 PM EST
    is to use the best interrogation methods possible - the kind that engage the detainee and gain their trust.

    The best, most successful interrogators are the ones who make their interviewer feel as comfortable as possible - something that torture (no matter how you define it) is not.


    I am sure (none / 0) (#29)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 02:55:38 PM EST
    that the sun is shining and all is well in your fantasy land.

    Have a nice life that someone is defending for you.


    Some time ago (5.00 / 0) (#30)
    by Fabian on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 03:10:59 PM EST
    possibly last year or early this year, NPR had an interview with a WWII interrogator.  His MO was to sit down with his interviewee, with food and drink and talk about things that they had in common - wife, kids, grandkids, life in the military, the challenges of command and so on.  

    He was considered quite good at what he did.  He got a lot of valuable information.

    I keep wondering if I'm missing anything by not consuming pop culture where everything is ridiculous melodramas.  I mean, really, are the terrorists who call in warnings about where the bombs are tortured first?  That never happens on "24"!  Yet it has happened in Ireland among other places.


    Your problem is that like the many on the far (2.00 / 0) (#31)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 04:14:39 PM EST
    Right, you see only one solution.

    I would bet that the WWII guy you speak of was part of a "good cop - bad cop" team.


    The far Right (5.00 / 0) (#32)
    by jondee on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 04:18:45 PM EST
    another in a series of Jim Freudian slips.

    But well put, I must say.


    No, no bad cop. (5.00 / 0) (#34)
    by Fabian on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 04:24:19 PM EST
    His schtick was "The war is over, your side will lose, why prolong the inevitable.  You served with honor, you did all that was asked of you, why don't we wrap this all up post haste so we can go home and see our families?".

    what schtick for terrorists? (2.00 / 0) (#37)
    by diogenes on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 08:25:28 PM EST
    What schtick do you use on a terrorist who is looking forward to 72 virgins if he is martyred?  Assure him that Osama is gonna lose anyway?  

    Don't wake them up. (2.00 / 0) (#38)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 08:41:40 PM EST
    ZOMG! (none / 0) (#41)
    by Fabian on Wed Sep 23, 2009 at 09:00:08 AM EST
    I think that the GOP's crack about the Libruls thinking that terrorists just need understanding and therapy wasn't far off the mark.  Creating a rapport and an atmosphere of trust is SOP in therapy - because it helps people to talk openly.

    ZOMG! again, I say.

    For the people who need to have their bogeymen, their terr'rists, their axis of evil, their antichrist - I have nothing to say that will convince them.


    They're only scientists (5.00 / 0) (#33)
    by jondee on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 04:21:25 PM EST
    if the intelligent designers at Planet Wingnuttia say they are, and not until.

    Healing and gettin' saved (5.00 / 0) (#35)
    by jondee on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 04:25:50 PM EST
    with rattlesnakes has been around for a millenia, too.

    Because a coterie of people think something is valuable dosnt make it valuable.


    Jondee is back with his usual venom (2.00 / 0) (#39)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 08:43:27 PM EST
    Hi ya been Jondee? Got any new insults or are you still using the usual ones?



    Any new updates (none / 0) (#42)
    by jondee on Wed Sep 23, 2009 at 07:28:10 PM EST
    on that Obama's a non-native born radical Muslim series you had running at your site, Jim?

    I know, you're just a kindly, old red-blooded American patriot who'ed never do or say ANYTHING malicious..


    My two biggest fans (none / 0) (#44)
    by jimakaPPJ on Thu Sep 24, 2009 at 09:31:20 AM EST
    show up... Life is good.

    Of course if either could actually comment on an issue instead of launching personal attacks......


    I'll bite. (none / 0) (#5)
    by phat on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 12:55:51 AM EST
    What's your point?

    So has the death penalty (none / 0) (#6)
    by gyrfalcon on Tue Sep 22, 2009 at 01:13:12 AM EST