Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Why Torture Doesn't Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Why Torture Doesn't Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation

Article excerpt

Why Torture Doesn't Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation BY SHANE O'MARA HARVARD, 336 PAGES, $29.95

The "torture memos" released by President Obama in April 2009 are redacted versions of U.S. Department of Justice communications advising the CIA, Department of Defense, and President George W. Bush on how "enhanced interrogation techniques" could be interpreted as legally permissible.

As someone morally opposed to torture, Shane O'Mara was disturbed by what he read in the papers. He decided to launch his own investigation into the validity of torture as an "information extraction methodology" and its effects on the brains of both the tortured and the torturers. O'Mara's conclusion is revealed in his book's title, Why Torture Doesn't Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation. The title also lays bare his neuro-reductionist worldview.

O'Mara outlines-from the perspective of an "experimental neuroscientist" (despite his training as an experimental psychologist)-the known effects of various psychic and physical stressors, such as pain, sleep deprivation, and starvation, on brain function, from which he draws conclusions about the probable effects of torture on the brain. In a conclusion similar to that of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report, he says that torture is an excellent way to extract a false confession but not to gain accurate intelligence. More important, O'Mara articulates those conditions under which humans are capable of abandoning their natural inclination toward empathy in order to inflict pain on another human being. In the words of former Guantanamo interrogator Jennifer Bryson, "The starting point for torture is the dehumanization of a detainee. Those who dehumanize others corrupt themselves in the process. . . . The torturer lets go of reason, one of the marks of humanity, and descends into rage."

The main limitation of O'Mara's book is a philosophical one. O'Mara suggests that recent advances in neuroscience have shown that we can attend to physical realities alone and ignore psychological and moral ones. This is naive neural reductionism, the belief that all things can be understood by breaking them into basic units. The entire universe is made up of atoms; the brain is made up of neurons. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.