Last week, Newsweek’s Sharon Begley reported that neuroscientists have built up a body evidence which demonstrates that extreme stress and pain can physiologically inhibit the brain’s ability to communicate truthful and accurate information. The data collected by neuroscientists goes contrary to the commonly held assumption that the use of torture is a necessary tactic for obtaining information from prisoners and detainees.
One scientist interviewed in the article, Shane O’Mara of Dublin, argued that studies have demonstrated that extended stress and pain can negatively affect the human brain’s ability to recall memories and to think clearly.
Sleep and food deprivation studies done on U.S. soldiers and Special Forces soldiers who had undergone extreme stress revealed that the soldiers had trouble recalling previously learned information after the exposure to heavy stress. The article mentioned other studies exploring the effects of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, which led to brain damage in cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for accessing long term memory.
Begley further reported that other stress related chemicals released into the brain when under pressure can lead to a swelling of the amygdale, which in turn can cause confusion between real and false memories can impair memory recall in general.
O’Mara summarized the years of research accumulated by neuroscientists by saying that, ”¦prolonged and extreme stress inhibits the biological processes believed to support memory in the brain.’ She added that torture would tend not to produce reliable and truthful information.
Begley pointed out the possibility that the generalizations drawn from the data on brain functioning in relation to stress may not hold true for all human brains. However, current scientific data has not yet provided conclusive evidence to support the claim that torture results in truthful and useful information.
There are further implications of the data presented. Since talking can earn a respite for a prisoner undergoing torture, the prisoner’s brain may react to extreme pain by producing a chaotic flow of information in order to stop the torture. If the prisoner does not have information, the extreme stress may lead him or her to make false confessions and provide false information as a biological reaction in an attempt to relieve the stress.
While there is still no conclusive evidence that torture works or does not work 100 percent of the time, it serves all interested parties to consider the scientific data and to base future actions upon what the data shows, rather than opinions and common unfounded assumptions.