Mind Games

What Torture Does to the Brain

A life-size mannequin called "Man in the Hood" is displayed at the "War Is A Crime" exhibition in Kuala Lumpur November 19, 2011. Bazuki Muhammad / Reuters

Torture, as an interrogational tactic, has been proven to be a complete and utter failure. It may seem intuitive that applying extremes of pain, torment, and stress to captives before and during their interrogation could enhance their willingness to divulge information. But when the full gamut of torture’s effects are considered, it is clear that the practice is far from judicious, wise, or sensible. Even after setting ethical, moral and legal debates aside, torture profoundly and negatively affects the tortured and, less obviously, the torturer. In most cases, it undermines the brain systems and circuits supporting the knowledge the suspect possesses.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that torture compromises the brain, attacking the very fabric of the mind itself. This aligns with the moral, ethical, and legal evidence that shows how the practice sacrifices much while yielding very little. In order to get people to talk, science argues, they must be actively listened to. Offering respect, friendliness, and warmth are the keys to getting information from a captive, rather than intimidation and violence.


To understand why torture fails, it is important to know how long-term memory works. It is the category of memory responsible for storing and recalling past, personally experienced facts, and events that extend over at least one sleep–wake cycle. Long-term memory can also include events that have not yet occurred—such as long-held intentions to do something in the future. These memories are created and stored through a complex network that connects the frontal lobes, temporal lobes, and a region deep in the brain known as the anterior thalamus. To be sure, the network has its limits. The brain does not store memories faithfully, or in a video-like fashion. Rather, memories are fragile, subject to revision and loss, most especially because of the passage of time and the incorporation of new information, as well as fatigue, stress, and pain. Severe stressors of the type used during torture impair one’s ability to

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