Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation

Shane O’Mara. Harvard Univ, $29.95 (316p) ISBN 978-0-674-74390-8
O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College, Dublin, has written a dense but persuasive scientific analysis of the evidence against the efficacy of torture. Movies and TV shows often portray torture as an essential means for extracting vital information that villains are withholding, but that’s not the case in real life, O’Mara writes. That withheld information, presumably locked in the prisoner’s memories, is wildly unreliable; studies universally show that memory is not a photographic record, but “more like a Wikipedia page—you can go change it, but so can other people.” Despite their quasi-scientific rhetoric, all arguments favoring torture are based on an emotional appeal; the actual research is damning. In often gruesome and turgid scholarly prose, O’Mara describes the effects on brain function of stress, pain, sleep deprivation, starvation, drowning, heat, and cold. The results are dismal; these experiences do not facilitate recall, and memories degrade. Even the traditional claim that torture saves lives by quickly revealing critical information turns out to be wrong: torture takes a surprisingly long time to produce what is only questionable information. Persistent, nonviolent interrogation, meanwhile, has a good track record. O’Mara has written a sober, convincing argument that torture is practically worthless and morally disgraceful. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 09/07/2015
Release date: 11/01/2015
Genre: Nonfiction
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