A life-size mannequin called "Man in the Hood" is displayed at the "War Is A Crime" exhibition in Kuala Lumpur November 19, 2011.
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 encode memories. They also disrupt the consolidation of memory, and erode one’s ability to retrieve memories—even of simple, straightforward, fact-based information.

So torture techniques that involve stressors such as repeated suffocation, extended sleep deprivation, and caloric restriction, lessen the brain’s ability to do much of anything. In particular, the range of “white tortures” formerly employed by the Central Intelligence Agency assault a person’s core psychological, neural, and physiological functioning. Waterboardingsensory deprivationstarvation, and stress positions were thought to push detainees to reveal the contents of their long-term memories in a reliable, truthful, and replicable fashion. Instead, these techniques forced the brain to move away from the relatively narrow, adaptive range that it operates within, taking away any hope of obtaining useful information.

These techniques have also been shown to cause growth in regions of the brain responsible for processing fear and threats—the same regions that create persistent and sustained states of hypervigilance and substantially lowered startle reflexes, symptoms most commonly seen in those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Areas of the brain responsible for controlling behavior also become less responsive, making it less likely for a captive to act reasonably and reliably.

Sleep deprivation, in particular, causes reduced psychomotor and cognitive function, as well as difficulty recalling long-term memories. Deliberate suffocation and near-drowning (most notably connected to forms of waterboarding) send predator threat signals to the brain, and oxygen restriction reliably draws activity away from the regions of the brain concerned with higher cognitive function and memory in favor of survival instincts—all of which reduce one’s ability to recall and provide information from one’s long-term memory. In other words, given what we know of the brain, memory, mood, and cognition, it is unsurprising that the information obtained from torture is so often utterly worthless. 

A woman walks into a torture chamber of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21), in the centre of Phnom Penh February 16, 2009.
A woman walks into a torture chamber of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21), in the centre of Phnom Penh February 16, 2009.
Adrees Latif / Reuters


Since interrogators want access to the contents of long-term memory, they need to take a different approach. And there are a wide range of interrogation methods that yield meaningful results. At the heart of all of these is a conversation. Language has long been the tool by which interrogators have gotten into the mind, memory, and motivation of their captive. By making themselves appear reliable and friendly, and through showing respect, interrogators can more easily obtain information. When a subject feels safe, the natural pathways of thought and memory open up, allowing the interrogator to probe memory, mood, and cognition more effectively.

These methods have been tested in a wide variety of settings and individuals, such as among volunteer participants, psychiatric and neuropsychological patients, in forensic settings, and among members of the armed forces undergoing combat training.

As a result of such experiences, scientists today are better equipped than ever to probe the mood and cognitive states of others. To be sure, there is still much work to be done, especially when it comes to interrogations, but we do know that inter-personal cognitive and emotional connections that occur during conversations make all the difference. For now, it would be wise to create a new interdisciplinary science of interrogation and interviewing for police and intelligence agencies. As the Senate Torture Report painfully demonstrated, no substantial political priority has been given to understanding human behavior within an intelligence context, and even less attention has been paid toward properly training the best candidates for interrogation and interviews. Creating a directorate for intelligence and policing agencies that prioritizes research in this area, and the application of the brain and behavioral sciences during interrogations would go a long way in remediating poor and unethical practices. Placing this prospective “high-value detainee interrogation group” on a secure legislative footing is a welcome first step.

Under a new program, interrogators would report to the highest levels of policy makers and government officials. And those officials would be responsible for repudiating coercive interrogation and torture as immoral, illegal, and contrary to good investigative practice. Further, such directorates would be required to mandate strong training and research programs. These standards should approach the level of training required for clinical interviewing by professional psychiatrists and psychologists, exposing trainees to a wide variety of behaviors, similar to those in clinical settings. Training should also promote the best personal traits within each candidate that prove beneficial in psychological interview settings, for example sensitivity, cultural awareness, and comfort with both personal reflection and the expression of self-doubt. Such a shift will lead to better information-gathering than violence and coercion ever have. 

A visitor tries on a metal mask, used as a torture device by the regime of Iraq's ousted leader Saddam Hussein, displayed at an exhibition gallery at the Martyrs Monument in Baghdad May 24, 2013.
A visitor tries on a metal mask, used as a torture device by the regime of Iraq's ousted leader Saddam Hussein, displayed at an exhibition gallery at the Martyrs Monument in Baghdad May 24, 2013.
Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters
New interrogation methods will require changes from policymakers, practitioners, and scientists, and may even present a considerable challenge to current cultural norms. Rising to these challenges, however, will help eliminate prisoner abuse and yield better evidence. The question of how best to conduct interrogations, who should conduct them, and what training is required is not an issue of law enforcement; rather, it is an issue best addressed and solved by the behavioral and brain science community. Theory and data within these fields should be the driving factors behind policymaking, rather than ideological concepts of justice and thinly veiled hunger for retribution and punishment. Everyone involved must recognize that human intelligence and information gathering is at the heart of law enforcement, and to do the job properly, practitioners must understand the inner workings of the mind.

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