Torture methods employed for perceptual, personality and behavioural modification in Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’

English: Picture of George Orwell which appear...
English: Picture of George Orwell which appears in an old acreditation for the BNUJ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Author Arthur Koestler
Author Arthur Koestler (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[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]

George Orwell and Arthur Koestler  were perhaps the most important and celebrated political novelists of the mid-20th century. They were very different individuals, having lived very different lives. Koestler was a restless Hungarian émigré who spent time under sentence of death while in solitary confinement during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was a writer who lived a spartan and frugal life only to die prematurely of tuberculosis. Both wrote novels exploring the darkest recesses of the totalitarian mind. And each brought to bear a distinctive viewpoint that revealed how the isolated individual, through the insidious desiccant of torture, can be remoulded to the bidding of the state.

Orwell’s 1984 uses at first a straightforward pain-based method of torture, but subsequently shifts to the use of tortures designed to reshape and remould what Smith himself sees and thinks. The tortures employed are remarkably prescient in certain respects in the way they anticipated neurotechnologies might develop in the distant future.

Koestler wrote a series of political novels, of which Darkness at Noon is the most revered. Darkness at Noon offers an exploration of the relentless of the totalitarian mind, and was ahead of its time in the exploration of a simple but profound torture – sleep deprivation

In the next couple of posts, I will examine the uses of torture in each of these novels.

(see here for previous posts on torture in this blog)

Please consider purchasing my book: 

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

Amazon (.com)

Amazon (

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

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