Quirks & Quarks

Torture doesn't work and here's the scientific evidence

Donald Trump says it does. His generals disagree. So, does it work or doesn't it?
In this photo, reviewed by a U.S. Department of Defense official, a Guantanamo detainee's feet are shackled to the floor as he attends a "Life Skills" class inside the Camp 6 high-security detention facility at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in this file pool photo taken April 27, 2010. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe torture can be justified to extract information from suspected terrorists, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, a level of support similar to that seen in countries like Nigeria where militant attacks are common. (REUTERS/Michelle Shephard/Pool TPX )

Does torture work or doesn't it? Even though his generals disagree, U.S. President Donald Trump seems to think it does. In an interview with ABC News' David Muir, he said, "I have spoken, as recently as 24 hours ago, with people at the highest level of intelligence and I asked them the question: 'Does it work? Does torture work?' And the answer was, 'yes, absolutely.'"

President Trump then reiterated his thoughts in an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity. "I spoke with people the other day who are in this world we're talking about. They said, 'absolutely it works.' Now, General Mattis said that he doesn't intend to use it. I'm with him all the way." Hannity followed up with, "Do you believe it works?" Trump replied, "Yes, I do."

Dr. Shane O'Mara is a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin and the author of the book, "Why Torture Doesn't Work."

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Bob McDonald: Why do you say that torture doesn't work?  

Dr. Shane O'Mara: The case I make is that torture for information gathering purposes from other humans is about the worst method that you could think of. In that context, it simply does not work. Everything that we know about the effect that it has on the functioning of the brain and body militates against the conclusion that it works for reliable, repeatable, replicable information gathering.

BM: Well let's take one of your examples and look what happens in the brain. Let's start with sleep deprivation. What does that do to the brain?

SO: The first thing is that we know that sleep deprivation causes a degradation across all psychological states that you can assess in direct proportion to the degree to which you are sleep deprived. By that I mean, your memory is degraded dramatically, your ability to control your own emotions is degraded, your ability to make good judgments is degraded, your ability to deploy attention is degraded, your ability to simply think straight is degraded. These are all the things that you wanted to perform normally during an interrogation. You want a person to be able to recall clearly. You want to be able to probe what it is they were thinking of at a particular point in time.

BM: What parts of the brain are affected by sleep deprivation?

SO: Initially, for want of a better phrase, the pieces of the brain at the front and at the top of the frontal lobes, but gradually what you see is changes in activity right throughout the whole brain. When we're sleep deprived chronically as the result of a stress, your stress hormone levels rise and rise really dramatically. And they stay at very high levels for prolonged periods of time. That, in turn, causes an eventually degradation of the very tissues that you want to be working normally during the course of an interrogation: the frontal and temporal lobes, those parts of the brain that are concerned with recall, supporting memory, and your ability to think.

BM:  Now let's take another torture technique here waterboarding, which President Trump says is "just short of torture." So what does that do to a person's brain?

SO: Waterboarding is probably the worst of the tortures that you could be subjected to. We know that the experience of loss of breath is deeply unpleasant. Air hunger is probably our most profound drive. And we require that breathing to keep us alive. Waterboarding attacks that fundamental aspect of your function.

BM:  What's going on in the brain?

SO:  So we've all experienced the diving reflex. This is a reflex that occurs when the temperature of the water that strikes the face is lower than the air temperature around us. We have it every morning when you wash your face. You get this feeling where you suck in a deep breath. So ideally in waterboarding, what you do is you keep the water cold, below body and room temperature. That causes automatic activation of receptors around the face, which drive breathing in the brainstem. And then the body, of course, encounters this massive ingestion of water. And what you see, to the extent that this has been able to be studied because it's difficult, is a shunting of all the activity in the brain away from the frontal lobes and higher brain regions, away from the periphery towards the brainstem, which controls breathing. This is where you get this automatic fight or flight struggle for air.

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