Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Science of Why Torture Doesn’t Work

Wired magazine has an article about a new paper by Shane O’Mara in Trends in Cognitive Sciences that examines the neuroscience of using things like stress positions and abuse to get accurate information out of detainees. He bluntly calls the belief that abuse and torture are effective a form of folk neuroscience that does not conform to what we know about how the brain works.

The problem, he says, is that stress hormones actually make it less likely that someone subject to abuse can accurately recall information, so that such abuse ends up “destroying the very memories they’re supposed to recover.” And it can even result in false memories taking the place of real memories – and the person being abused not being able to distinguish between them.

“There is a vast literature on the effects of extreme stress on motivation, mood and memory, using both animals and humans,” writes Shane O’Mara, a stress researcher at Ireland’s Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. “These techniques cause severe, repeated and prolonged stress, which compromises brain tissue supporting memory and executive function.”…

A report published by the Intelligence Science Board in 2007 found that no research existed to support the use of enhanced interrogation. And O’Mara’s review, published Monday in Trends in Cognitive Science, describes a wealth of science that supports ending the practice.

O’Mara derides the belief that extreme stress produces reliable memory as “folk neurobiology” that “is utterly unsupported by scientific evidence.” The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex — the brain’s centers of memory processing, storage and retrieval — are profoundly altered by stress hormones. Keep the stress up long enough, and it will “result in compromised cognitive function and even tissue loss,” warping the minds that interrogators want to read.

What’s more, tortured suspects might not even realize when they’re lying. Frontal lobe damage can produce false memories: As torture is maintained for weeks or months or years, suspects may incorporate their captors’ allegations into their own version of reality.

This is something we’ve also seen from police interrogations. In the nearly 250 cases where DNA evidence has conclusively shown that someone convicted of a crime could not have done it, that person had actually plead guilty. In at least some of those cases, there is evidence that in the course of being broken down during interrogation, the person actually began to believe that they had done it, incorporating the scenarios offered by police officers seamlessly into their own memories under duress.