Shane O'Mara D.Phil.

The Interrogated Brain

How Should We Interrogate the Brain?

The latest research points the way to effective and ethical interrogation

Posted Apr 02, 2016

//], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By nesnad (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Towards a New Science of Interrogation

I’ve argued previously here that the evidence is clear – that torture doesn’t work for veridical information gathering during interrogation, and that it doesn’t work for reasons that derive from fundamental aspects of the structure and functioning of our brains. The detailed, evidence-based case that this is so is made in my book… Here, I want to present some background on research in the behavioural and brain sciences that can be brought to bear on these issues. In later posts, I will present some of the research work funded under the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), which is engaged in vital and cutting-edge research on interrogation. One caveat: there are no royal roads to the divination of the contents of human minds, nor will there be. [part 1; part 3; book]

Where is interrogation at now?

We need reliable, replicable, trainable, transferrable alternatives to the torture of prisoners and detainees as standard interrogation procedures, so that torture is never invoked again by uninformed amateurs as a method for interrogation. These interrogation procedures must be ethically-sound, evidence-based and empirically-founded. Sadly, this is an area that has received little by way of direct, large-scale research funding over the past decades. It is also an area in which personal intuitions are too often used as a guide, in part because our cultural imaginations are rich with images where torture is used for interrogation – and where in fiction it does so successfully.

The actual historical uses of torture – what it works best for – are rarely shown in movies and television. Torture is probably the best technique there is for forcing a confession from someone; for forcing someone to abjure their beliefs; for spreading fear and terror in a population. It is a wonderful technique for the dark imagination: the visiting of righteous vengeance and medieval punishment on ‘evil-doers’ and other out-groups. This latter use of torture was, of course, widespread in Europe until the late 1700s or so – the phrase ‘mortification of the flesh’ has real meaning as a punishment in law in the various medieval states of Europe. It gives us the latter-day expression ‘getting medieval’ as an expression meaning to torture someone terribly.

As a veridical information collection and information gathering tool, torture is probably the worst technique available to an interrogator. The legal systems of the world are polluted with cases where confessions extracted under duress have been used to secure convictions – which are of course unsafe and unsatisfactory. And to make matters worse – the victims do not secure justice either, as the truly guilty get off scot-free (for recent examples, the cases of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four are especially instructive).

Interrogation as a Behavioural and Brain Sciences Problem

During interrogation, or during a forensic interview, by definition, the interrogator minimally wishes access to the contents of the long-term memories of the detainee. A reasonable definition of long-term memory is that it is memory for past, personally-experienced facts and events extending over at least one sleep-wake cycle (although it can and may extend back for decades). Long-term memories can also be of events that have not yet occurred, as memories also embrace long-held intentions for future action. The brain network supporting this form of memory consists of areas of the frontal lobes, the temporal lobes, and a region deep in the centre of the brain known as the anterior thalamus. Interactions between these regions, as well as regular sleep, are required for the encoding, storing and retrieval of memories.

The brain is a limited storage entity: it does not store memories faithfully or in a video-like fashion. And memories themselves are fragile, subject to revision and loss through time, fatigue, stress, and pain. Stressors, depending on their severity, chronicity and type, usually impair encoding of memories, disrupt consolidation of memory, and erode retrieval of memories (even of simple, straightforward, declarative and fact-based information). This is especially the case under torture regimes that combine stressors, such as repeated suffocation (say via waterboarding), extended sleep deprivation and caloric restriction. All of the evidence gathered from combat soldiers, normal volunteers, elite athletes and a variety of neuropsychiatric patients points in the same direction: that extreme stressors of the type used during torture impair cognition, memory and mood in all of their phases.

What else does an interrogator need to know?

Additionally, the interrogator wants to understand many other things about the detainee or source: a non-exhaustive list would include how they characteristically see the world; how they reason about events in the world; the state of their mental health; what they see as especially salient about their intellectual, social, religious, familial commitments; their general mind-set; their general optimism-pessimism bias; the degree to which they are narcissistic, egotistical or grandiose about themselves and their own significance; the extent to which they have sublimated themselves within the cause to which they are affiliated; the extent to which they are knowledge-rich or knowledge-poor about the world; the list goes on and on. The extreme stressor states caused by torture need to be seen for what they are: utterly inimical to the gathering of this and other related information.

Interrogation as Directed Remembering

During an interrogation or interview, the interrogator or interviewer wants to know what the interviewee knows: the intelligence or operational-related information that they possess; the plans and intentions that they may have; details of their past; relevant information about their social and operational networks; their skills, training, attitudes, commitment, and a whole host of other information as well. By definition, this information is stored within the networks of their brain that support long-term memory: it can’t be anywhere else. Some of this information may be wrapped up in issues of personal or group identity (e.g. religious or nationalistic commitment); other information might be much less identity-bound, and may be easier to elicit. Certain detainees might be profoundly motivated by reasons of religion and/or nationalism; others may have simply a low-boredom threshold, a sense of adventure and enjoy getting paid for what they do; others again may be involved because of threat and coercion against their families, or because of simple economic need. Others because they have been socialised into terrorism through familial links (there appears to be a strong fraternal influence involved in many recent cases, for example). Or there may be other reasons entirely. Some detainees may be entirely innocent, or misidentified, or captured and sold by economically-motivated mercenaries. Stereotyping the motivations of any detainee is potentially dangerous and misleading. The foregoing underscores the need for very careful preparation prior to the interrogation itself by the interrogator.

Interrogation is a Research and Operational Problem for the Behavioural and Brain Sciences

There are a wide range of practice- and experience-derived methodologies employed by various agencies to support interrogation. There is little evidence that, until recently, interrogation practice has taken account of, or cared to be rooted in, the behavioural and brain sciences. This is a significant deficit, because there is a large and relevant body of research available on how the brain sustains functions such as memory, attention, mood, well-being and the like. There are also many research-based tools available within the behavioural and brain sciences that would make intelligence and information gathering more reliable, dependable and replicable, in turn improving operational effectiveness.

An interdisciplinary science of interrogation and interviewing

At the heart of interrogation or a forensic interview is a conversation – the use of language to elicit verbal responses to allow history taking and information gathering. There are well-described tools available now for probing memory, mood and cognition available within the behavioural and brain sciences. Further, these tools have been tested in a wide variety of settings, and have been tested in volunteer participants, psychiatric and neuropsychological patients, forensic and other groups. Much is now known about the stability and fragility of memory and cognition; how to optimally probe the cognitive and mood states of others. Similarly, we also now know a considerable amount about lie detection, and how poor humans are at detecting lies because of systematic biases in the use of cues for lying which are indistinct and undependable. There is also a considerable research agenda to be tackled. We know, for example, little about the reconstructive and transactional processes occurring during remembering under interrogation. Equally, we know little about the inter-personal cognitive and emotional coupling that occurs during conversation. During a question and answer conversation, the content of questions and answers and the speech systems supporting them act on a millisecond scale – rapidly, reliably and quickly. But how, and under what conditions? Self-disclosure is central to human conversation: it happens quickly, effortlessly and unconsciously, and comprises perhaps 40% of conversational content. It is also intrinsically rewarding, activating the brain’s reward system, compared with making disclosures about others. Interviews and interrogations are, however, peculiar because they occur under artificial circumstances, with an expectation of asymmetry in self-report: the interrogator expects disclosure, and does not expect to engage in disclosure. We do not know if hearing disclosures from another is intrinsically biologically rewarding in the way that self-disclosure is.

There has been little substantive research of sufficient scale to support current interrogation or interviewing practices. Techniques such as the ‘Reid’ technique (involving provocational or confrontational interrogation) do not have strong empirical support. Indeed, many of these techniques are better understood as historical or cultural relics (like psychoanalysis), deriving from a time before much was understood about how the brain supports memory and cognition. The available evidence suggests that they might be good at eliciting confessions, but not at eliciting the truth. They therefore impair best investigative practice. Polygraphy and brain imaging for lie detection are similarly compromised, as they lack empirical foundation or support. There is a need for a profound cultural shift regarding these practices – they impair investigation and truth-finding, rather than facilitating it. These practices are also culture specific: there are huge variation in interviewing practice even across the police forces of the Anglophone world. There is a dearth of large-scale studies in the literature on the best interrogation techniques, compared for example with the overwhelmingly large literature on how the brain supports memory functions, etc. These studies need to meet the appropriate empirical bar: they need to be conducted using proper experimental designs with appropriate hypotheses stated in advance, or they need to be randomised control trials conducted in a variety of settings. There has however been a substantial training effort in the clinical psychological, psychiatric and related professions addressing this very issue, which can be used in this new setting.

The purpose of the interview or interrogation needs to be very clearly thought through. Is it confession-seeking or for information elicitation and gathering? There are many possible variants to the interview: they might be assessment-based (and may be structured or semi-structured); they might be competence-based (where a linguistic fluency and coherency analysis is undertaken, followed by tests of literacy and numeracy, where these are not known, etc.). Appropriate logs and full video and sound recording taken preferably from the point of view of both the interrogator and detainee need also to be made. The dual viewpoint is to allow the interrogator to develop a sense of their own personal style, and to provide a focus for self-improvement, as well as providing an exterior check on the conduct of the interrogation itself. There are hints from interrogation that techniques of information-gathering that give the illusion of complete knowledge coupled with oblique and indirect questioning (the Scharff technique) and which will allow the detainee to be ‘boxed-in’ facilitate unknowing self-disclosure and boost information gathering. The limit case here is not understood, however. It should be clear by now, though, that there is a vast research agenda to be dealt with: we should no longer be misled by fevered intuitions and biased introspections about how to reliably gather information from other human beings.

Follow me on twitter: is external) is external) (published by Harvard University Press, Nov, 2015)


An Irish Examiner Best Book of 2015

A Times Higher Education Book of the Week, 2015

Instead of simply providing utilitarian arguments, [O’Mara] argues that there is no evidence from psychology or neuroscience for many of the specious justifications of torture as an information-gathering tool. Providing an abundance of gruesome detail, O’Mara marshals vast, useful information about the effects of such practices on the brain and the body. (Lasana T. Harris Nature 2015-11-05)

Does torture actually work? To be sure, it can compel people to confess to crimes and to repudiate their religious and political beliefs. But there is a world of difference between compelling someone to speak and compelling them to tell the truth… Yet the assumption underlying the ticking time bomb defense is that abusive questioning reliably causes people to reveal truthful information that they would otherwise refuse to disclose. Few scholars have scrutinized this assumption―and none with the rigor, depth, and clarity of Shane O’Mara in his excellent book, Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation… Invoking the relevant science, he shows that torture undermines the very neurocognitive mechanisms requisite for recalling veridical information from memory. (Richard McNally Science 2015-10-16)

If the aim of the torturers is to extract information, they should read O’Mara’s book and adopt gentler methods. CIA and the rest of you, read and note. Neuroscience says your methods don’t work. (Steven Rose Times Higher Education 2015-11-26)

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