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Why Sleep Deprivation Is Torture

Prolonged sleep deprivation is a cruel and useless method of interrogation.

A recently released report by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence focused on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. According to the report, among the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used in this program was sleep deprivation.

“Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at time with their hands shackled above their heads. At least five detainees experienced disturbing hallucinations during prolonged sleep deprivation and, in at least two of those cases, the CIA nonetheless continued the sleep deprivation.”

Since the release of the report, Americans have debated whether or not the methods used by the CIA can be properly called “torture.” I don’t know about the other methods, but I do know that the methods of sleep deprivation reportedly used are clearly acts of torture. In fact, prolonged sleep deprivation is an especially insidious form of torture because it attacks the deep biological functions at the core of a person’s mental and physical health. It is less overtly violent than cutting off someone’s finger, but it can be far more damaging and painful if pushed to extremes.

Why is this? Start with the fact that sleep is a basic biological necessity for all humans, indeed for all creatures on the planet. There is some natural variability and flexibility in the sleep cycle, hence people can go 24 or more hours without sleep in the right circumstances, without any lasting harm other than additional “rebound” sleep the next time they are able to sleep normally. However, if a person is deprived of sleep for longer than that, several mental and physical problems begin to develop.

The first signs of sleep deprivation are unpleasant feelings of fatigue, irritability, and difficulties concentrating. Then come problems with reading and speaking clearly, poor judgment, lower body temperature, and a considerable increase in appetite. If the deprivation continues, the worsening effects include disorientation, visual misperceptions, apathy, severe lethargy, and social withdrawal.

For ethical reasons, professional researchers have never pushed the deprivation process beyond this point with human subjects. Researchers have used animals for more extreme experiments, and the inevitable result is that prolonged sleep deprivation will eventually kill a creature. Various behavioral impairments accumulate along the way as the deprivation continues, but if the experiment is pushed far enough the final result is always a widespread physiological failure leading to death. The cumulative effects of sleep deprivation go beyond the loss of this or that specific function to a precipitous, ultimately fatal decline in all functions.

Part of the reason for this calamitous breakdown is that during sleep, the immune system performs a host of vital regenerative functions that are absolutely necessary for a healthy mind and body in waking life. When a person is deprived of sleep, the immune system becomes unable to perform these functions. The negative effects become much more intense when people are already sick, injured, or traumatized. Whatever bodily damage they have suffered will not heal as fast. Whatever pain they are feeling will get worse. Whatever new bodily damage threatens them will be harder to defend against.

Forcibly depriving a person of sleep is a profound assault on the entire biological system at the foundation of that person’s mind and body.

Some have argued that torture, although morally reprehensible, may in some cases be worth it if the information gained helps to save innocent American lives.

Again, that may or may not be true with other torture methods, but it is almost certainly false in cases using sleep deprivation. One of the first symptoms of sleep deprivation in humans is a disordering of thought and bursts of irrationality. Beyond 24 hours of deprivation people suffer huge drops in cognitive functions like accurate memory, coherent speech, and social competence. Eventually, the victims suffer hallucinations and a total break with reality.

Whatever sounds come out of people’s mouths at that point, whatever words they may seem to be saying, have to count as the least reliable kind of information one could possibly conceive. A mind tortured to that extremity will not provide anything that can be trusted as relevant to the real world. Even if the person really knew some vital bit of information (e.g., the location of a ticking time bomb), prolonged sleep deprivation will make it less likely the person could accurately and meaningfully communicate that information. Beyond a certain point, the sleep-deprived individual can no longer maintain enough cognitive coherence to say anything useful to anyone.

Extreme sleep deprivation of the kind reportedly practiced by the CIA is torture, by any reasonable definition of the term. Furthermore, it is probably an especially useless form of torture, since the likelihood of gaining “actionable intelligence” from people will diminish the longer they are deprived of sleep.

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