Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation

In This Review

Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation
By Shane O’Mara
Harvard University Press, 2015
336 pp.
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Critics of the use of torture in interrogations have marshaled a sophisticated body of philosophical, ethical, and legal arguments to argue against the practice. This study puts all of that aside and asks the question, What does the science say? O’Mara, who is a professor of experimental brain research, concludes that torture simply is not effective as an interrogation tactic. The book takes readers on an extended tour of the brain and the way it functions under the “chronic, severe, and extreme stressor states” produced by forms of torture such as starvation, thirst, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding. O’Mara looks at the scientific literature examining the effects of these grim methods and determines that information obtained using them is inherently suspect. Meanwhile, people subjected to severe torture are likely to sustain permanent damage to their brains and psychological functioning. The last refuge in the defense of torture has always been an appeal to elevate pragmatism and security over ethics and the law in the face of a “ticking time bomb.” O’Mara’s book reveals the hollowness of that argument.

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