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So, Dick Cheney and friends want to claim that torture is responsible for Obama finding bin Laden. Think so?

Many argue that when a prisoner gets tortured, he will say anything just to make the torture stop. Perhaps they are right in cases when the prisoner is willing to speak quickly. Once a prisoner gets questioned under torture, though, recollection becomes dubious. In fact, an interrogatee's responses are affected by the manner of questioning -- and can be molded into bizarre false confessions even in the absence of stress.

Let us revisit the myths about torture, beginning with the idea that it is a way to extract credible intelligence. Let's begin by considering how hard it is to get an accurate story in everyday life...

Memory is fragile. If dialogue about a memory takes place, even if it isn't under trauma, the act of thinking about the memory changes it just a bit. The way a person gets questioned is key, and it's hard enough to get an accurate story when the questioner isn't inflicting trauma. In fact, if a subject gets questioned cleverly enough...

Guided questioning changes memory.

We tend to assume that memory gets written in the head and then recalled much like it does in a computer -- that an event gets stored in the brain and remains there unchanged. It turns out that this is not true. Memory is fragile and highly subject to suggestion.

The brain will record highlights of major events, and the mind will fill in the gaps with plausible but false events that the brain's owner believes to be true. This process is called confabulation -- and everybody does it to some degree. This is not by choice: it is simply how the head works.

Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at University of Washington, is a leading researcher in how we create false memories. In this article, she lists cases where people go into therapy and become convinced that they have genuinely bizarre memories. For example:
During therapy, the psychiatrist used hypnosis and other suggestive techniques to dig out buried memories of abuse that Cool herself had allegedly experienced. In the process, Cool became convinced that she had repressed memories of having been in a satanic cult, of eating babies, of being raped, of having sex with animals and of being forced to watch the murder of her eight-year-old friend.

But all confabulations are not so spectacular. In the following youtube video called The Bunny Effect, she describes how she got guests at Disneyland to insist that they shook Bugs Bunny's hand during their visit.

In a similar study, she shows how an original memory becomes contaminated by a suggestive "new memory":


The data from the videos are taken from healthy people under low stress. These people are not lying. In every case they are telling the truth as given to them by their memories.

In criminal cases, it turns out that the way investigators question a witness can impact their testimony. The recent memoir Picking Cotton describes precisely such a scenario. A woman who was raped is certain that she picked the right perpetrator from a lineup -- but he is innocent. It turns out that the methodology they used to create the lineup contributed to that mistake. They presented photos to her in a manner much like Loftus presented sketches of faces in the video Manufacturing Memories above.

What does this have to do with torture?

Enhanced interrogations, by definition, are carried out by putting the subject under stress. It turns out that in addition to the memory hiccups the prisoners might have under normal circumstances, stress plays a direct role in compromising memory recall.

Jeansok Kim, another professor of psychology at University of Washington studies how stress affects the brain's ability to process information:

In a study on mice, stress affected the synapse frequency in the brain-- which inhibited memory recall. In particular, he measured the effects that stress has on the hippocampus.

Torture is the systematic use of trauma to provoke a change in consciousness. It is a deliberate, systematic attack on the emotional centers of the brain. The point is to overstimulate the limbic and autonomic nervous systems enough to cause an emotional breakdown. This affects memory particularly, and the more stress the prisoner experiences, the more likely it is that confabulation will occur. But forcing confabulation is the same thing as extracting false confession.

Under torture, a prisoner could well give false information that he genuinely believes to be true.

So, the art of torture is to get a prisoner to talk before he loses his marbles -- and confabulates his memories -- completely? Partially? Does it matter more or less depending on the scenario? Is it possible to get an an answer that is not contaminated?

Myth #1: Extreme techniques like waterboarding are useful for extraction actionable intellegence.

No, they are only useful for scrambling and molding memories.

Originally posted to rb137 on Mon May 02, 2011 at 07:06 PM PDT.

Also republished by J Town, Foreign Relations, Inherent Human Rights, and SciTech.

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