Torture, Mind, and Body

Torture, Mind, and Body

Torture, Mind, and Body

Science, technology, and life.
April 21 2009 10:52 AM

Torture, Mind, and Body

Does torture inflict lasting psychological harm?

Yesterday we examined the CIA's reasons for involving psychologists in the Bush torture—sorry, I meant detainee interrogation program. The psychologist's job was to figure out how to inflict unbearable anguish on prisoners without requiring violence, or at least without leaving visible scars.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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But what about mental scars?

In the Los Angeles Times , Sarah Gantz and Ben Meyerson look into the controversy:

The conclusion in recently released Justice Department memos that CIA interrogation techniques would not cause prolonged mental harm is disputed by some doctors and psychologists, who say that the mental damage incurred from the practices is significant and undeniable. ... Interrogation techniques undoubtedly have lasting effects, [professor Nina Thomas of NYU] said, such as paranoia, anxiety, hyper-vigilance and "the destruction of people's personalities." ... "Some of these [techniques] clearly have a very real physical component," said Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. He cited waterboarding. ... A prisoner deprived of sleep may be overwhelmed with memories of torture when they become tired years later, Keller said. The same is true, he said, for the stomach growls of those tortured by starvation.

I'll go a step further. The problem isn't just that the techniques are physical. The problem is that the mind itself is physical. I just got back from a conference at Cambridge University sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation . In a series of seminars with neuroscientists and philosophers—among them, Chris Frith of University College London, Alva Noe of the University of California-Berkeley, and Fraser Watts of Cambridge—we explored how physiology, mental activity, and environmental conditions transform one another. You can't torture the mind without altering the brain. And since the brain is part of the body—in fact, the part of the body that most influences all the others—the marks you leave are pervasive. You can alter any physical process in which the mind is involved: sleep, eating, conversation, love, going out in public, or all of the above.

The U.S. military knows this. Its brochure for service members with post-traumatic stress disorder states:

PTSD is a condition that develops after someone has experienced a life-threatening situation, such as combat. In PTSD, the event must have involved actual or threatened death or serious injury and caused an emotional reaction involving intense fear, hopelessness, or horror. ... People who have PTSD have experiences from all three of these categories ["Re-experience the event over and over again," "Avoid people, places, or feelings that remind you of the event," and " Feel 'keyed up' or on-edge all the time"] that stay with them most of the time and interfere with their ability to live their life or do their job.

I look forward to watching Bush's lawyers explain before Congress—and maybe the International Criminal Court—why this diagnosis doesn't apply to water-boarded detainees.