Friday, April 17, 2009

Sleep and torture

I apologize for the delay in fresh "psych in the news" posts and promise new entries soon chock-full of current events in psychology. In the meantime, I thought one current event deserved its own post.

The release this week of the so-called "torture memos" that defined what techniques could be used by U.S. interrogators on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay included one section particularly relevant to our field -- that is, sleep deprivation. The author of one memo, Steven Bradbury of the Department of Justice, writes that "[w]e understand from OMS, and from our review of the literature on the physiology of sleep, that even very extended sleep deprivation does not cause physical pain, let alone severe physical pain." The author goes on to repeatedly mention this "review of the literature on the physiology of sleep" and then proceeds to cite his ultimate reference: a 1998 work called Why We Sleep by James Horne -- a textbook.

So what is learned from this text? That in controlled experiments subjects experienced sleep deprivation for 8-11 days and that this formed the basis for keeping prisoners up for days, at least 3 for more than 96 hours. When contacted by a blog today for his perspective, Dr. Horne was outraged and saddened at how his research had been misused:
"As soon as you add in any other stress, any other psychological stress, then the sleep deprivation feeds on that, and the two compound each other to make things far worse. I made that very, very clear," he said. "And there's been a lot of research by others since then to show that this is the case."
Further, Horne continued, sleep-deprived subjects become so confused that they're highly unlikely to offer useful intelligence. "I don't understand what you're going to get out of it," he said. "You can no longer think rationally, you just become more of an automaton ... These people will just be spewing nonsense anyway. It's pointless!"
In sum, said Horne, he feels "saddened" that the memo's author "didn't fully interpret what I actually wrote." The memo "distorts what I really meant, and I never meant for it to be, in any way, indicative that you could start torturing people in this way. That was not the intention at all."

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