Review: Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, by Shane O’Mara

By Adelma Jakupovic

Waterboarding. Sleep deprivation. Solitary confinement. Stress positions. These were some of the tactics outlined and authorized in a series of Bush Administration secret legal documents, known as the “torture memos,” which were made public in 2009. Most accept that these tactics amount to torture.

However, whether torture is an effective means of eliciting information and preventing terrorism, especially during a so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario—a hypothetical situation in which a bomb is set to explode and only the prisoner can provide information to prevent it—is still a point of contention today. And many, unfortunately, seem to think it works.

In Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, Shane O’Mara, professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College, Dublin, casts morality aside to examine whether torture produces reliable information. He reviews existing research in psychology and neuroscience to highlight the impact of torture methods on brain function. While proponents of torture claim these methods will elicit important information from prisoners, O’Mara proves them wrong.

O’Mara explains that torture damages the brain’s ability to regulate the expression of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When the brain is exposed to stress, fear, and pain, it undergoes major disruptive changes that impair its cognitive functioning. Torture disorients prisoners, prevents them from accurately recalling past events, forces them to make false confessions to escape the torture, and causes long-term neurological disorders, especially when stressors are applied frequently. Even those who are willing to cooperate, once tortured, are unable to offer useful information, as they begin to question their own judgments about what transpired prior to their capture.

O’Mara also delves into the research of spotting lies. He shows that interrogators and modern technology are not better at detecting deception than ordinary people. He rejects the common assumption that gaze aversion implies dishonesty, citing how easily misinterpretation happens. Even polygraphs and functional magnetic resonance imaging, which looks at increased blood flow to regions of the brain that are believed to be associated with lying, are incapable of accurately gauging truthfulness. They produce faulty intelligence and compromise the quality of information interrogators seek the most—secrets that will save lives, and quickly.

If torture is ineffective and causes mental harm, then why do torturers torture? O’Mara cites numerous studies that show people with the tendency to hurt others often have an empathy gap. They do not have the ability to fully empathize with those being harmed, as their brains differentiate between their own pain and seeing someone else in pain. Boundaries are created that prevent the inclusion of others in the self. This is precisely why it is easier for policymakers to advocate for torture: they do not have the responsibility to carry it out themselves.

Last year Congress solidified the ban on torture by passing the McCain-Feinstein amendment, ensuring that the United States can never again return to Bush-era torture policies. But O’Mara’s book provides an immense service by debunking any lingering doubts about torture’s efficacy as an intelligence gathering tool using scientific evidence.

O’Mara concludes by offering science-based recommendations for methods of interrogation that are both more efficient and compliant with human rights standards. His ultimate contribution is not in morally or legally discrediting torture, but assisting those in the interrogation field to find the most effective ways to elicit accurate information. In doing so, O’Mara makes it clear that torture should never be used for intelligence gathering, no matter how compelling the “ticking time bomb” scenario may be.


Published on January 22, 2016


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