Terrorism, Torture and Memory: Royal Irish Academy | About | Science Series

[My book Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation’ (Harvard UP) can be preordered from Amazon (.com) – more details at end of post]

Royal Irish Academy | About | Science Series

via Royal Irish Academy | About | Science Series.

This links to a podcast of an unusual interdisciplinary evening, featuring a neuroscientist (me), a political scientist (Richard English) and a Supreme Court Justice (Adrian Hardiman) where we approached the topic of torture from several differing perspectives, but found ourselves converging on similar conclusions. I have occasionally published on the neuroscience of torture (e.g. ‘Torturing the Brain’ – abstract below – and On the Imposition of Torture, an Extreme Stressor State, to Extract Information From Memory). My talk attempts to elaborate some public policy implications of neuroscience and experimental psychology in the area of human rights, and on the implications of torture in particular.


Professors Richard English ( St. Andrews University) and Shane O’Mara (Trinity College, Dublin)
(Response: Adrian Hardiman)
Wednesday, 26 June, 2013 in Academy House

The views of a political scientist and a neuroscientist. Professors Richard English ( St. Andrews University) and Shane O’Mara (Trinity College, Dublin). A joint interdisciplinary discourse to recognise United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

Torturing the brain: On the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating ‘enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques
Shane O’Mara
Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity College, Dublin 2, Ireland

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.

Please consider purchasing my book: 

‘Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation’ which can be preordered from:

Amazon (.com)

Amazon (.co.uk)

Harvard University Press

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 thetorturer’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.”

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

2 thoughts on “Terrorism, Torture and Memory: Royal Irish Academy | About | Science Series

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s