The tortured mind

As individuals, few of us will ever experience the stressor states inflicted on torture victims with the goal of retrieving information.  It is difficult for our empathy to extend to these extremities of suffering, leaving us with a poor understanding of what torture does to a person. However this activity, which has pervaded human society throughout history, has other avenues of impact that are more quantifiable and less devoid of experiential relatability.  These are easier for the majority of people to interpret.


Donald Trump, who serves as Commander-in- Chief of the world’s strongest military force, has said of waterboarding; ‘Believe me, it works, and you know what, if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they’re doing’. This is arguably the most extreme form of torture regularly done in supposedly developed countries today.  It might be time for the average citizen to achieve a greater understanding of what torture is, its effectiveness in retrieving reliable information, and its long term impacts on both its victims and perpetrators.


A recent review of 50 sources on the topic by Shane O’Mara from Trinity’s Institute of Neuroscience, which included two papers and a book by himself, has broken the topic of torture down. O’Mara communicates torture as a lucid and graspable topic by drawing on the tools of philosophy, history, and perhaps most importantly, biochemistry.



You Kant do that!


O’Mara’s review starts off by pitting the two main philosophical stances on the “greater good” against each other.  This helps contextualise the justification of torturing someone in order to extract information that may be used to prevent the suffering of a greater number of individuals.  These two ideas are Utilitarianism vs. the position of Immanuel Kant.  Utilitarianism proposes it is simple maths, and that one life is simply less valuable than 2 lives, or more, and therefore that the preventative action of torture may be justified.  The Kantian stance posits that human experiences cannot boiled down to basic arithmetic, that every individual’s experience is as important as the collective experience.  In other words, every life exposed to suffering, or ended, is an entire reality of suffering or a world destroyed.


These arguments are very interesting but fail to take important factors into account, such as; does torture work?  Is it a valid means of espionage?  O’Mara spends the majority of the review tackling these questions.


The issue with torture as an area of research is that it is nearly impossible to conduct any RCTs (randomized control tests) on humans.  Not only would it be unethical, but also think of the difficulty one would face in manufacturing an individual’s motivation to withhold information.  So this review relies on anecdotal evidence, and the sacrifice of our rodent pals in experiments that examine chronic exposure to stress.



The Science of Stress


Rather than going into the mind-numbing and grotesque details of the varying methods of torture, it is much easier to understand the practise through a lens that is common to all forms of torture – stress.


Stress is the modern term for the stimulation of our fight or flight response by stimuli that pose an apparent threat to us. This response is mediated by your sympathetic nervous system – which, despite its name, is not the kindest branch of your autonomic nervous system.  It diverts biological resources from processes that are not essential for survival, such as digestion and immunity, to areas involved in surviving danger. The prolonged stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system is a stressor state sometimes described as CUS (chronic unpredictable stress) in a lab.


These stressor states have measurable impacts spanning from brain weight and neuron composition to our entire systems of cognition. The release of stress hormones such as choline and catecholamines have been seen to have reliable, distinguishable and predictable effects on brain circuitry. There is a reduction in volume in the hippocampus, (the memory centre of the brain) proportional to the time under stress. The amygdala (the fear centre of the brain) grows in volume as the composite neurons swell, leading to hypersensitivity causing a positive feedback loop of brain degradation.


Another area affected by prolonged stress is the prefrontal cortex; an area in charge of higher executive function.  Higher executive function is a term that gets thrown around a lot at the junction between neuroscience and psychology.  It basically defines the systems in our brains or minds that select and monitor our actions with the drive of achieving a specific goal.  So when these parts of the brain begin to atrophy under trauma it can have dire consequences on our identity and humanity.


Examples of the effects of stress with less neuro-jargon were also scattered throughout the review.  Research published in 2016 found that college students who had undergone sleep deprivation (AKA any college students) were substantially more likely to make false confessions than students who had had a normal night’s sleep. As summarized by the paper: “To be clear, the case here is not that torture uniformly does not work for information gathering. Rather, the case is this: torture substantially degrades signal-to-noise ratios of information yield and substantially increases false positive discovery rates.”


The review took many differing angles. The author – despite condemning torture as immoral and inhumane from the outset – cannot say that it is 100% ineffective.  There isn’t enough data to come to that conclusion.  It seems unlikely that governments will open the floodgates and reveal the illegal activities they’ve been involved with anytime soon. In the meantime we will have to use a little intuition based on the data we do have, and based on what is deemed acceptable and moral by society at large.  For myself it’s pretty clear that torture has no place in information retrieval in our society.


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