Believing In Wet Works

by digby

Scott Horton discusses the available scientific evidence showing that torture doesn't work and then notes this new information:

Now another important contribution to the scientific literature has appeared. Irish neurobiologist Shane O’Mara of Trinity College Dublin, writing in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, takes a special look at the Bush Administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques:

the use of such techniques appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect. Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced’ interrogation.

Newsweek’s Sharon Begley summarizes O’Mara’s analysis:

So let’s break this down anatomically. Fact One: To recall information stored in the brain, you must activate a number of areas, especially the prefrontal cortex (site of intentionality) and hippocampus (the door to long-term memory storage). Fact Two: Stress such as that caused by torture releases the hormone cortisol, which can impair cognitive function, including that of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Studies in which soldiers were subjected to stress in the form of food and sleep deprivation have found that it impaired their ability to recall personal memories and information, as this 2006 study reported. “Studies of extreme stress with Special Forces Soldiers have found that recall of previously-learned information was impaired after stress occurred,” notes O’Mara. “Water-boarding in particular is an extreme stressor and has the potential to elicit widespread stress-induced changes in the brain.”

Stress also releases catecholamines such as noradrenaline, which can enlarge the amygdale (structures involved in the processing of fear), also impairing memory and the ability to distinguish a true memory from a false or implanted one. Brain imaging of torture victims, as in this study, suggest why: torture triggers abnormal patterns of activation in the frontal and temporal lobes, impairing memory. Rather than a question triggering a (relatively) simple pattern of brain activation that leads to the stored memory of information that can answer the question, the question stimulates memories almost chaotically, without regard to their truthfulness. These neurochemical effects set the stage for two serious pitfalls of interrogation under torture, argues O’Mara. The first is that “information presented by the captor to elicit responses during interrogation may inadvertently become part of the suspect’s memory, especially since suspects are under extreme stress and are required to tell and retell the same events which may have happened over a period of years.” As a result, information produced by the suspect may parrot or embellish suggestions from the interrogators rather than revealing something both truthful and unknown to the interrogators. Second, cortisol-induced damage to the prefrontal cortex can cause confabulation, or false memories. Because a person being tortured loses the ability to distinguish between true and false memories, as a 2008 study showed, further pain and stress does not cause him to tell the truth, but to retreat further into a fog where he cannot tell true from false.

If science wasn't a proven communist conspiracy, that might be convincing. As it is we will have to rely on the renowned neurobiological experts Dick Cheney and John Yoo, who tell us otherwise.

Actually, I think "folk psychology" is the best way to describe the "feeling" people have about the efficacy of torture. They just "know" that people will tell the truth if they are given enough pain. We all probably believe deep down that we'd spill our guts if enough torture were applied, so naturally others would too. It's truthiness about truth. But it's one of those things like ... well, aerodynamics. You just have to believe the engineers and pilots and the evidence before you that your plane won't fall out of the sky even though it "feels" like it absolutely should. One hopes that the new interrogation team the Obama administration has gathered will listen to the science and jettison these methods from the interrogation arsenal once and for all.

I wish they'd consult some ethicists as well, however. We wouldn't have to have these discussions in the first place if the moral compass of the American political and military establishment wasn't so damaged that this country can't tell the difference between right and wrong -- or legal and illegal. There are many things that might "work" that are nonetheless taboo. Why this one is now controversial is less a matter of rejecting the science than accepting the clear and obvious moral depravity of those who would order such things be done to other human beings.