Sleep deprivation as the torture of choice in Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’

Cover of
Cover of Darkness at Noon

[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]

Orwell, in a 1944 essay on Koestler’s great novel of the show trials, Darkness at Noon, observes that the main protagonist, Rubashov “confesses because he cannot find in his own mind any reason for not doing so….In the end, though he had to be bullied and weakened first, he is somewhat proud of his decision to confess to non-existent crimes”.  Here, the abnegation of self by confession is, in fact, the remoulding of self in the service of the needs of the Party. Compliance of this type, unmoored from anything other than dedication to the will of the Party, goes beyond mere surface behavioural change, to deep psychological compliance – a reordering of the self, and a subordination of the self to the Party. I wonder if Darkness at Noon is the first novel to treat sleep deprivation at length, especially as a method to induce extreme behavioural compliance?

Koestler was deeply aware of the necessity of the use of subtle forms of extreme psychological torture to cause these forms of deep-seated changes. In his great political novel, Darkness at Noon, he describes sleep deprivation in the following terms:

“Rubashov gave up the efforts to keep his head straight. Of course Gletkin was right not to believe him. Even he himself was beginning to get lost in the labyrinth of calculated lies and dialectic pretences, in the twilight between truth and illusion. The ultimate truth always receded a step; visible remained only the penultimate lie with which one had to serve it. And what pathetic contortions and St. Vitus’s dances did it compel one to! How could he convince Gletkin that this time he was really sincere, that he had arrived at the last station? Always one had to convince someone, talk, and argue— while one’s only wish was to sleep and to fade out. …

He felt in no state to continue the argument with Gletkin. The consciousness of his complete defeat filled him with a kind of relief; the obligation to continue the fight, the burden of responsibility were taken from him; the drowsiness of before returned. He felt the hammering in his head only as a faint echo, and for a few seconds it seemed to him that behind the desk sat, not Gletkin, but No. 1, with that look of strangely understanding irony he had given Rubashov as they shook hands at their last leavetaking. An inscription came into his mind which he had read on the gateway of the cemetery at Errancis where Saint-Just, Robespierre and their sixteen beheaded comrades lay buried It consisted of one word; Dormir—to sleep.

From that moment onwards, Rubashov’s recollection again became hazy. He had probably fallen asleep for the second time—for a few minutes or seconds; but this time he did not remember having dreamed. He must have been woken by Gletkin to sign the statement. Gletkin passed him his fountain pen which, Rubashov noticed with slight disgust, was still warm from his pocket. The stenographer had ceased writing; there was complete silence in the room. The lamp had also stopped humming and spread a normal, rather faded light, for dawn appeared already at the window. Rubashov signed. The feeling of relief and irresponsibility remained, though he had forgotten the reason for it; then, drunk with sleep, he read through the statement in which he confessed…

Now temptation accompanied him through the indistinguishable days and nights, on his swaying walk through the corridor, in the white light of Gletkin’s lamp: the temptation, which consisted of the single word written on the cemetery of the defeated: Sleep. It was difficult to withstand, for it was a quiet and peaceful temptation; without gaudy paint, and not carnal. It was dumb; it did not use arguments.

Each time he had, after tenacious argument, signed a new confession and lain down on his bunk, exhausted and yet in a strange way satisfied, with the knowledge that he would be wakened in an hour or at most two—each time Rubashov had but one wish: that Gletkin would just once let him sleep and come to his senses. “I will give order that you are not to be troubled until the trial,” said Gletkin after a short pause, again stiff and precise. Rubashov’s smiling irritated him. “Have you any other particular wish?” “To sleep,” said Rubashov. He stood in the open door, beside the giant warder, small, elderly and insignificant with his pince-nez and beard. “I will give orders that your sleep must not be disturbed,” said Gletkin.”

Koestler here recognises a great human truth: that we need sleep, that we must have sleep. Koestler writes with great subtlety regarding sleep deprivation. The ever-present cognitive fog; the deficits in recall and reason. The blurring of the sense of linear time. The sudden onset of microsleeps – periods of a second to perhaps a few tens of seconds where Rubashov disappears below consciousness – only to find the world still present when he resurfaces. The overwhelming presence of the most profound biological hunger – one that overwhelms all others eventually – the hunger for a deep and prolonged sleep. Beyond the cognitive fog, Koestler hints at something more profound: Rubashov longs for sleep in order to “come to his senses”. Here, Koestler recognises something very important about sleep. Extended periods of sleep deprivation result in profound distortions of perception, but also of cognition. These changes resemble those found in certain psychiatric patients, and in people showing the decline in cognitive function that may attend aging.

There is now a vast literature on the effects of sleep deprivation in human volunteers – far greater than can be adequately explored in a blog post. Here I just mention a few key points, and place some very useful review articles at bottom. Modern experimental approaches to sleep in humans have revolved around recording behavioural observations of activity during sleep; the recording changes in that occur in autonomic responsivity during sleep; recording changes in the brain associated with the different phases of sleep; and examining the interaction between prior interventions and the subsequent quality of sleep. These interventions might be simple: having people observe stimuli of some description and then waking them when they are dreaming and asking them to describe the content of those dreams. It seems, for example, that playing Tetris for an hour or two prior to sleep, causes you to dream about falling, or to dream about objects falling down. A different intervention might be to ask somebody to learn some prose, to read a complex passage and recall the contents of it, to learn some new motor act such as a sequence of finger tapping, and then require that person to play the sequence or recall the memory under conditions where they’ve been allowed to sleep; under conditions where sleep has been interrupted during slow wave sleep or during REM sleep; or where sleep has been abolished entirely for a complete cycle by requiring them to stay awake in a sleep laboratory. Some estimates I have seen suggest that an entire night without sleep can reduce IQ transiently by as much as a standard deviation – a very substantial reduction indeed. It should be no surprise that sleep deprivation has terrible and deleterious effects on explicit memory in particular. This paper is a great demonstration of these deficits, with a very nice experimental design to remove the impact of sleep, wake, and time-of-day influences.

The major surprise is that anybody would be foolish enough to be believe that this is an effective technique for torturing a memory out of someone (e.g. ‘Torturing the Brain’; see this great piece by The Neurocritic) . It is worth noting that inducing false memories in the sleep-deprived is straightforward (and can be relieved by caffeine!).

A nice review article:

Prog Brain Res. 2010;185:91-103. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-53702-7.00006-3.

Total sleep deprivation, chronic sleep restriction and sleep disruption.

Reynolds ACBanks S.

Sleep loss may result from total sleep deprivation (such as a shift worker might experience), chronic sleep restriction (due to work, medical conditions or lifestyle) or sleep disruption (which is common in sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome). Total sleep deprivation has been widely researched, and its effects have been well described. Chronic sleep restriction and sleep disruption (also known as sleep fragmentation) have received less experimental attention. Recently, there has been increasing interest in sleep restriction and disruption as it has been recognized that they have a similar impact on cognitive functioning as a period of total sleep deprivation. Sleep loss causes impairments in cognitive performance and simulated driving and induces sleepiness, fatigue and mood changes. This review examines recent research on the effects of sleep deprivation, restriction and disruption on cognition and neurophysiologic functioning in healthy adults, and contrasts the similarities and differences between these three modalities of sleep loss.

PMID: 21075235

And another:

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2011 Nov;96(4):564-82. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2011.07.004. Epub 2011 Aug 22.

The cognitive cost of sleep lost.

McCoy JGStrecker RE.

A substantial body of literature supports the intuitive notion that a good night’s sleep can facilitate human cognitive performance the next day. Deficits in attention, learning & memory, emotional reactivity, and higher-order cognitive processes, such as executive function and decision making, have all been documented following sleep disruption in humans. Thus, whilst numerous clinical and experimental studies link human sleep disturbance to cognitive deficits, attempts to develop valid and reliable rodent models of these phenomena are fewer, and relatively more recent. This review focuses primarily on the cognitive impairments produced by sleep disruption in rodent models of several human patterns of sleep loss/sleep disturbance. Though not an exclusive list, this review will focus on four specific types of sleep disturbance: total sleep deprivation, experimental sleep fragmentation, selective REM sleep deprivation, and chronic sleep restriction. The use of rodent models can provide greater opportunities to understand the neurobiological changes underlying sleep loss induced cognitive impairments. Thus, this review concludes with a description of recent neurobiological findings concerning the neuroplastic changes and putative brain mechanisms that may underlie the cognitive deficits produced by sleep disturbances.

PMID: 21875679

My book – ‘Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation’ – can now be preordered from:

Amazon (.com)

Amazon (

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 the torturer’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


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