Neuroscientist Says Torture Produces False Memories and Bad Intel

By Eliza Strickland | September 22, 2009 10:50 am

waterboarding-demoSleep deprivation. Stress positions. Waterboarding. These interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration in the war on terror were explained, at the time, as harsh but necessary tactics that forced captives to give up names, plots, and other information. But a new look at the neurobiological effects of prolonged stress on the brain suggests that torture damages the memory, and therefore often produces bad intelligence.

Irish neuroscientist Shane O’Mara reviewed the scientific literature about the effect of stress on memory and brain function after reading descriptions of the CIA’s Bush-era interrogation methods. The methods were detailed in previously classified legal memos released in April. O’Mara did not examine or interview any of those interrogated by the CIA [AP].

His findings: “These techniques cause severe, repeated and prolonged stress, which compromises brain tissue supporting memory and executive function” []. The study, to be published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, took note of the effect of the stress hormone cortisol on the brain, as well as the fear-related hormone noradrenaline’s impact on memory and the ability to distinguish true from false.

O’Mara derides the belief that extreme stress produces reliable memory as “folk neurobiology” that “is utterly unsupported by scientific evidence.” The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex — the brain’s centers of memory processing, storage and retrieval — are profoundly altered by stress hormones. Keep the stress up long enough, and it will “result in compromised cognitive function and even tissue loss,” warping the minds that interrogators want to read [].

The researcher notes that studies of soldiers under extreme stress have shown that the soldiers have trouble recalling personal information, and that brain scans of torture victims have shown unusual patterns of brain activation. According to O’Mara, the studies show that first off, the suspect may parrot or embellish suggestions from the interrogators rather than revealing something both truthful and unknown to the interrogators. Second, cortisol-induced damage to the prefrontal cortex can cause confabulation, or false memories. Because a person being tortured loses the ability to distinguish between true and false memories, as a 2008 study showed, further pain and stress does not cause him to tell the truth, but to retreat further into a fog where he cannot tell true from false [Newsweek].

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Image: flickr / g[wiz]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Mind & Brain
  • Coma Coma Coma Chameleon

    Palin Cheney in 2012! Now that’s entertainment!

  • Michael

    Well, all of this isn’t entirely new, but it’s all interesting. The proven best way to extract information is to establish a relationship of some kind of trust with the person being questioned. That individual will eventually tell you a great deal.

    However, that often takes a LONG time. Where time is of the essence, the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario, the questioner cannot be successful with that process. So if thousands of lives are at stake, the questioner has a moral conundrum of the highest order: is torture justified in this particular instance, or is torture NEVER justified?

    Using torture affects the questioner as well as the questioned, and greatly affects the institution that authorizes the torture. All in very negative ways. Are these negative effects acceptable in some extraordinary circumstances, or not?

    I don’t see these questions as very easily answered. If my daughters were to die very soon, and torture of the most horrific kind could save them, would I condone it? Frankly, I hope I am not confronted with this kind of choice.

  • Kelly

    I think if torture resulted in reliable information there might be some justification, in an instance where you could damage one (or a few) lives to save many. However I still wouldn’t condone it, let alone in the real world where “evidence” retrieved through torture is no more likely to be accurate than eye-witness accounts, which in and of themselves are tenuous at best. I just read an article ( about how people convince themselves that something happened, even when it didn’t, just because they watched a video that had been modified to make it look like the event happened. That’s scary! And now we physically and mentally abuse people in the pursuit of possibly (/probably) false information? HORRIFYING.

  • salami salami baloney

    Extraordinary rendition is when you take a suspect, often on hearsay testimony, and send him from a non-torturing country to a torturing country. No waterboards in Egypt, but plenty of pliars and blowtorches..

    That’s the same as hiring a leg breaking goon to do something you don’t want to get your hands dirty doing yourself.

    Why does the current administration continue the lasts shamefull policies without public outrage?

  • Michelle

    Ironically, this is the price some pay for what is good and beautiful in this world. Not necessarily of course but men choose to make it the price. Women, in their blind desires to simply please men will second the charges instead of using maternal influence to change things. Sad. You never know though, I thought So. Africa would never be free of its legal Aparthied either so maybe there’s hope…
    Bush is a personification of the Devil himself. I know things this man has done that no one else does. How did he get into human form?

  • Tara Phoenix

    Bad behavior NEVER justifies bad behavior. Punishment and torture do not work, have never worked, and will never work. The “price to be paid” is that we need to own our part in that which has created antipathy toward the United States.

  • Brian Too

    I categorically reject the idea that it matters whether torture produces “Good intel” or “Bad intel”. Even if torture is effective and the scenario is the overused “ticking time bomb” it still doesn’t matter.

    Torture is wrong and lowers you to the moral level you believe the tortured is at. Torture either damages the person doing the torturing, or encourages you to hire those who are so morally flawed that they cannot be harmed by torturing. Think about that–are those the people you want working on your side? Psychopaths?

    What makes us the good guys? Why are the enemy the bad guys? Is it all about teams and affiliation and tribalism or do we really have a morally superior position?

    As far as I’m concerned, in order to have a cause worth fighting for, you cannot torture. If you torture then you cannot claim moral superiority to the enemy.

  • IT Support St. Louis

    Hello there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I really enjoy reading your articles. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same topics? Appreciate it!


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