Torturing the brain (because this is what torture results in: broken brains, minds and bodies)

[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]

Given the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence study on the use of torture by the CIA, I thought it would be useful to gather together previous pieces on this blog on torture, including reblogs from other places.

The following point can’t be emphasised enough: torture is a useless technique for extracting information from long-term memory, because imposing severe neuropsychiatric distress substantially impedes the functioning of the brain systems and subsystems concerned with storage and recall of memory (among many other consequences). There is no good reason to expect from cognitive neuroscience that the imposition of substantial sustained stressor states will have a positive effect on the brain systems supporting memory; quite the contrary is what should be expected.  An honest appraisal of the evidence on torture will emphasise what Senator John McCain (who was tortured in Vietnam for five years) said:

“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence,” he said. “I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.”

Please consider purchasing my book: 

‘Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation’ which can 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 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.”

Some readings:

Special issue of Zeitschrift für Psychologie on Torture, edited by Roland Weierstall, Thomas Elbert and Andreas Maercker. Twelve papers running from ethics to the treatment and assessment of torture survivors.

Papers (click on titles for the papers):

On the Imposition of Torture, an Extreme Stressor State, to Extract Information From Memory,  S O’Mara, Zeitschrift für Psychologie/Journal of Psychology, 219, 2011, 159-166, DOI 10.1027/2151-2604/a000063

ABSTRACT: There is a widespread and popularly-held belief that the imposition of extreme stressor states (torture) is efficacious at facilitating the release of intentionally-withheld information from (human) memory. Here, I explore why this belief is so widespread. I examine the folk model of the brain and behavior that underpins this belief, and show that this folk model is utterly inconsistent with what we currently know about the effects of extreme stressor states on the brain systems that support memory and executive function. Scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests that subjecting individuals to such states is unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of what is intended by coercive or “enhanced” interrogation. Coercive interrogations involving imposition of extreme stressor states are unlikely to facilitate the release of veridical information from long-term memory, given our current cognitive neurobiological knowledge. On the contrary, these techniques cause severe, repeated, and prolonged stress, which compromises brain tissue supporting memory and executive function. The fact that the detrimental effects of these techniques on the brain are not visible to the naked eye makes them no less real.

Torturing the brain: on the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating ‘enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques’. S O’Mara, Trends Cogn Sci. 2009 Dec;13(12):497-500. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.09.001. Epub 2009 Sep 24.

ABSTRACT: On 16 April 2009, the US Department of Justice released legal memos detailing coercive interrogation techniques used with terrorism suspects during the Bush administration ( 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.


Snake oil salesmen selling torture

Originally posted on Mind Hacks:
The US Government has just released its report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, aptly branded the “torture report”, which is available online as a pdf. It makes for appalling reading but sheds light…

Read the report on US torture after 9/11

The US Senate Intelligence Committee has released the first documents from its multiyear investigation of the CIA’s controversial “enhanced interrogation” techniques used on al-Qaeda terrorism suspects after the attacks of September 11, 2001. According to a press…

Reflections on the representations and implications of torture from medieval Siena (the Museo della Tortura) and London (the London Dungeon)

La Balzana, beautiful Siena, the extravagant, the eccentric, sitting atop a hill in Tuscany, is another world. Once a medieval town of wealth and consequence; later marooned, isolated and preserved by the Black Death and the shifting alliances of the … Continue reading

Some thoughts on the origins of the lay psychology of torture, PTSD, communication and memory provoked by ‘America Is Likely to Torture Again’ – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic

Face It: America Is Likely to Torture Again – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic (Above: a demonstration of the ‘water torture‘ in the Museo della Tortura, Siena, Italy; pic by author) Face It: America Is Likely to Torture Again – … Continue reading

Marathon Man: Hoffman, Olivier, Paranoia and Tortured Information Extraction

Marathon Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier, is a classic of the paranoid thriller genre that was so popular during the 1970’s. It is also renowned for an extended and graphic torture sequence. Dustin Hoffman plays Thomas “Babe” … Continue reading

How Doctors Became Torturers

Originally posted on The Dish:
A new report on CIA and Pentagon abuse of prisoners cites damning evidence that medical professionals were fully complicit in the war crimes committed under Bush and Cheney. “Do harm” was their effective ethical mantra…

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

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 … Continue reading

Electroconvulsive shock and transcranial stimulation as torture methods in George Orwell’s 1984

I first read George Orwell’s 1984 while in hospital for a minor operation in my early teens. It horrified me at the time, and it continues to exert a powerful hold on my imagination. It is justly celebrated as possibly … Continue reading

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

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 … Continue reading

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

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 …Continue reading

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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