Written for the forthcoming Trauma Exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin: Trauma and Torture

Ahead of TRAUMA: BUILT TO BREAK opening on Friday the 20th of November 2015, we’re bringing you a series of essays from the curators of the show that explore some of the themes it will explore. Here, in the first of the series, neuroscientist Shane O’Mara looks at the effect trauma and torture has on us as human beings.


Trauma: Late 17th century: from Greek, literally ‘wound’; a deeply distressing or disturbing experience; emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long-term neurosis; physical injury.” (Oxford English Dictionary).

 Trauma, a little word, portending so much: the aftermath of a terrible experience, the feeling of being tested, tried, and falling short. The transitory or enduring loss of autonomy and agency; the knowledge that life may never be the same again, because trauma leaves you different to the way you were before.

Trauma is something that has happened, something that has left its mark. Something unintentional. Something noxious. It is also something that might happen, something to be avoided, but also something to be prepared for. Trauma leaves its traces explicitly and implicitly, in ways sayable and unsayable. Trauma implies a rupture — between what went before, and what happens afterward. Trauma makes its experience felt through change. Changes in relationships with yourself, with others, with the world at large. Trauma survivors often say that they are changed and altered by the experience; that they ‘were not like this before’.

We can be deeply affected by the trauma of others. We possess a vicarious and automatic response to seeing another living being in distress. Our brains possess a specialised network (the ‘pain matrix’) that automatically and reflexively responds to the distress, pain and despair of another, and allows us the feelings of empathy and sympathy for the suffering of another. Indeed, so deep is our response to trauma, that whole occupational groups are devoted, often at great risk to themselves, to reporting on or alleviating the trauma experienced by others.

We humans, at our core, are social beings: we live in a social world, with its simple kindnesses – interactions that smooth everyday life. Trauma arising as an uncontrolled and uncontrollable assault on body and brain by another human being looms particularly large in our response to, and even the recovery from, trauma. The potential for this kind of assault looms large in our imaginations, our literatures, in our art. One special kind of trauma — torture — has been with us for all of recorded history. Torture involves the deliberate imposition of extremes of pain and suffering by one person upon another. Torture is a particular rupture of our social world, an uncontrolled and almost uncontrollable experience of pain and suffering for which our past social lives offer little by way of a guide. Hitherto safe assumptions about how we interact with others must be setaside. Democracies, when they secretly employ torture, use ‘white tortures’ — repeated traumas that attack our integrated psychological, neural, and physiological functions at their core. The tortures employed are variations on fundamental themes: oxygen deprivation through near-drowning and suffocation; shackling and stress positions; extended sleep deprivation; freezing, cooling, and starving the body and brain; overloading the senses with loud noise and bright lights; a drip-feed assault on personal dignity through facial slaps and holds, enforced nakedness, and the imposition of adult diapers; the slow destruction of the integrity of personhood through social isolation, social deprivation, and a deliberate program of deindividualisation; confinement in cramped boxes; threats involving guns and drills and attack dogs; pretended assaults on the loved ones of the captive. Unsurprisingly, torture survivors often live a lifetime with the visible and invisible scars of their experiences.

Chronic and severe traumas compromises integrated psychological functioning and cause loss of tissue in the brain regions involved in memory (the hippocampal formation), and decreases activity in brain regions concerned with intention, planning, and the general regulation of complex behavior (the frontal lobes). Finally, it causes increases in the activity of brain regions concerned with fear and threat-related information, a core problem in post-traumatic stress disorder and generalised anxiety disorder. And what of the torturers themselves? Because these events have happened in a democracy, there is no secret society of fellow torturers from whom to draw succour, social support, and reward. Engaging in physical and emotional assaults upon the defenceless in order to elicit worthless confessions and dubious intelligence is a degrading, humiliating, and, finally, a traumatic experience. The torturers too become broken, and their fate is the bottle, pills, or worse.

Is the experience of trauma entirely negative? Not necessarily. The phenomenon of ‘post-traumatic growth’ is one experienced by many: dealing with trauma and its aftermath can provide for many individuals (estimates suggest between 30% and 70%) new perspectives that were not previously available to them. These can include simply having renewed and deepened perspective on life and living; a re-evaluation of what are the truly important things in life; the simple sense that you can survive the worst that life can throw at you.

This finally leaves us with deep paradox: trauma is an integral part of life, and trauma is something that life can profit from, enhancing resilience, and providing lessons to us all.



Shane O’Mara is Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College Dublin, and Director of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. He is author of ‘Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation’ (Harvard University Press, 2015) and a co-curator of TRAUMA: BUILT TO BREAK, an exhibition and events programme exploring psychological, physical, and societal traumas.

Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation (Amazon) or from Harvard University Press

TRAUMA opens to the public on Friday the 20th of November 2015 and runs until the 21st of February 2016. Find out more at dublin.sciencegallery.com.

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

One thought on “Written for the forthcoming Trauma Exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin: Trauma and Torture

  1. Reblogged this on canisgallicus and commented:
    Trauma, so often I have asked myself why people used traumatic brain injury or acquired brain injury, now I understand from my own personal life experience that in fact a head injury can be traumatic. Trauma is subjective. The ‘hooded men’, I thought trauma related to terrorism in the context of Northern Ireland or what is presently being experienced by MENA migrants guided by mobile phones into harrowing conditions that in decades going forward will tell the narratives of torture.

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