Torture is immoral and ineffective. Research shows that torture damages the brain, resulting in memory loss, false confessions and misinformation.

Torture is immoral and ineffective. Research shows that torture damages the brain, resulting in memory loss, false confessions and misinformation.

Researchers at Trinity College in Dublin have found that torture and stress techniques used in interrogation compromise brain function and damage the parts of the brain where memory reside. This could result in the tortured person giving false information, confusing reality with fantasy, repeating the torturer’s assertions as fact, or simply saying what he thinks the torturer wants to hear in order to end the torture.

Shane O’Mara of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, published his review in the journal, Trends in Cognitive Science. O’Mara examined the legal memos released by the U.S. government in April detailing U.S. “enhanced” interrogation techniques from 2002 to 2005. O’Mara says of the ten particular torture techniques that he studied, “they seem based on the idea that repeatedly inducing shock, stress, anxiety, disorientation and lack of control is more effective than standard interrogatory techniques in making suspects reveal information.”

Torture Produces Misinformation and False Confessions

However, O’Mara said it’s likely that such techniques will result in false information.

“In sum, coercive interrogations involving extreme stress are unlikely, given our current cognitive neurobiological knowledge, to facilitate the release of veridical information from long-term memory,” he writes. “On the contrary, these techniques cause severe, repeated and prolonged stress, which compromises brain tissue supporting memory and executive function.”

“Waterboarding in particular is an extreme stressor and has the potential to elicit widespread stress-induced changes in the brain.”

Professor O’Mara said contemporary neuroscientific models of human memory showed that the hippocampus and prefrontal cortices of the brain were very important.

The stress hormone, cortisol, binds to receptors in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex increasing neuronal excitability which compromises the normal functioning of the brain if it is sustained.

And other stress hormones called catecholamines could lead to an increase in blood pressure and heart rate which could cause long-term damage to the brain and body if they were maintained at a high level for a long time.

Other Researchers Agree

The BBC Online reports on this issue:

Dr David Harper, a clinical psychologist from the University of East London, said the study appeared to be consistent with previous research on memory and trauma and with evidence of previous torture survivors and those in the intelligence community critical of psychological torture techniques.

“Believers in coercive interrogation tend to believe that people will ‘tell the truth’ as a result but much evidence suggests that people will, in fact, tell those conducting the torture what they think will make the torture stop.

“This has been noted as a danger by commentators from the Spanish Inquisition, through the Moscow Show Trials of the 1930s to the present day.”

Dr Stuart Turner of the Centre for the Study of Emotion and Law said: “There is now very strong evidence that torture and harsh interrogation techniques may disrupt normal memory processes.

“With this in mind, it is also unreasonable to expect torture survivors to be able to give consistent and complete accounts of their experiences.

“This is highly relevant, for example, to the process of decision making for asylum seekers, arriving in the UK seeking refuge and for whom credibility is often a central issue.

“It appears that O’Mara’s review paper supports the contention that to expect consistent memories in asylum applicants is unreasonable and therefore that inconsistencies should certainly not automatically be interpreted as evidence of fabrication.”