Event: Why torture doesn’t work: the neuroscience of interrogation

8:00pm, Wed, 10 Feb 2016
Wynn's Hotel, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1

Shane O’Mara, Professor of Experimental Brain Research, Institute of Neuroscience, TCD


Torture is banned because it is cruel and inhumane. But as I argue regarding the human brain under stress, another reason torture should never be condoned is because it does not work the way torturers assume it does.

In countless films and TV shows such as Homeland and 24, torture is portrayed as a harsh necessity. If cruelty can extract secrets that will save lives, so be it. CIA officers and others conducted torture using precisely this justification. But does torture accomplish what its defenders say it does? For ethical reasons, there are no scientific studies of torture. But neuroscientists know a lot about how the brain reacts to fear, extreme temperatures, starvation, thirst, sleep deprivation, and immersion in freezing water, all tools of the torturer’s trade. These stressors create problems for memory, mood, and thinking, and sufferers predictably produce information that is deeply unreliable—and, for intelligence purposes, even counterproductive. I will discuss the neuroscience of suffering, and show the brain is much more complex than the brute calculations of torturers have allowed, and I point the way to a humane approach to interrogation, founded in the science of brain and behaviour.

Torture may be effective in forcing confessions, as in Stalin’s Russia. But if we want information that we can depend on to save lives, our model should be Napoleon: “It has always been recognised that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile.”

Book: Why Torture Doesn't Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, published by Harvard University Press, Nov 2015.

Wed, 10 Feb, 2016

Wynn's Hotel, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1

€3 for members and concessions €6 for non-members

€3 for members and concessions €6 for non-members