Does Torture Actually Work?


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

A detainee at Camp X-Ray within Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, pictured in 2002. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Back on the campaign trail, Donald Trump said that he’d bring back “waterboarding” and a “hell of a lot worse” if he were to become president. This method of so-called “enhanced interrogation” is widely seen as torture, and although it rose to prominence during the Bush administration, it was outlawed during the Obama years.

Trump won the presidency, though, and sure enough, during his first televised interview as America’s commander-in-chief, he claimed that torture “absolutely” works – according to conversations he has had with intelligence officials – and that in order to combat the barbarity of so-called ISIS, the US should “fight fire with fire.”


Now we’re not going to debate the moral and ethical quandaries that enhanced interrogation brings to the fore. We will point out that it is against international law, but we’ll leave this particular debate for others to engage in.

We’re here to remind you all that there is plenty of scientific evidence that torture does not achieve the results it’s after – namely, the release of accurate information useful to the intelligence services.

Fear and Loathing

Trump revealing that he feels torture "absolutely works." CNN via YouTube


First off, information given out under duress is likely to be inaccurate in many cases, simply because of the victim’s fear of such bodily harm. Those being tortured are known to say almost anything to make it stop.

A key study by Shane O’Mara, a renowned professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, notes that the calculus here is simple.

“The captor wants the captive to speak and reveal key information from their long-term memory. The captive wants to escape the extreme stress while not revealing key information,” it reads. “As long as the captive is talking, the captor can avoid using torture,” and thus they will tend to say anything to achieve this goal.

Nevertheless, torture has been used to elicit the “truth” for millennia.


“The Ancient Greeks and Romans relied on torture,” Russell Moul, a doctoral researcher at the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent, told IFLScience. “In fact, they did not think some judicial testimony to be true unless it was extracted through torture,” particularly when it came to slaves, who were thought to lack the capacity to reason.

Just because it’s been done for centuries, however, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Moul points out that by the time of the Age of Enlightenment, attitudes had changed dramatically for most.

Cesare Beccaria, widely seen as the father of classic criminal theory, analyzed the evidence obtained from torture and concluded it was rarely trustworthy – people were just saying anything to make the pain stop.

However, fear isn’t the only driving factor here. Damaging someone’s brain or central nervous system using these methods will clearly distort information, render it inaccessible, or bury it in a fit of delirious nonsense.


Damage Control

Torture comes in many forms, from electrical shocks and waterboarding to scalding, starvation, and sensory deprivation. Although they all produce a variety of physiological effects on the human body, they all have the same objective – to get to the “truth” – and the bequeathing of this heavily depends on what happens on a neurological level to the victim.

Research on this topic is particularly tricky to do, as access to people that have been tortured in this way is, unsurprisingly, limited.

Previous research has been done on refugees that have escaped autocratic regimes that have previously tortured them, and even a quick glance at a paper from 2002 makes for some grim reading – in particular, with regards to the neurological damage it often causes.


“Torture can be classified as physical, mental and sexual. In most cases, victims experience all three forms of torture during a single event,” it begins.

Going on to explain that blunt trauma through beatings is by far the most common form, it is noted to cause bleeding of the brain, spinal cord fractures, and leakage and seizures, all of which will have a clear effect on a person’s neurological functioning.

Penetrating wounds, through sharp objects or even bullets, can also cause massive destruction to the nervous system, causing “cognitive and visual impairments.”

Asphyxiation, also very common – and something that waterboarding partially achieves – also causes victims to suffer “memory and cognitive impairments, or they may be left in a permanent vegetative state.” Electric shocks can give a person epilepsy.


A victim of the Spanish Inquisition being tortured during the 15th Century before a tribunal. Everett Historical/Shutterstock

Combining this physical damage with a powerful, enduring sense of fear tends to generate some rather strange responses in the victims.

Normally, when faced with a threat, your body experiences a rush of adrenaline, and you either stay and fight or you take flight. Torture does not offer these two options, and in response, the mind begins to dissociate from what is going on.

Emotions, memories, real-time sensory processing, and more become segregated from each other, and the victim’s mental state breaks down. Logic begins to become irrelevant.


O’Mara explains that the brain’s hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are particularly vulnerable to prolonged torture. The former deals with the consolidation of short-term memories into long-term memories, whereas the latter handles personality, decision making, complex planning, and thought processing.

“Oxygen restriction reliably draws activity away from brain regions concerned with higher cognitive function and memory toward brainstem regions concerned with reflexive responses supporting immediate survival,” O’Mara explains. “This militates against truthful recall.”

In short bursts, this damage is reversible, but over long periods of time, this can lead to amnesia, personality disorders, and function loss. One loses their mind, so to speak – not ideal if someone is trying to get information out of them.

The Times They Are A-Changing


To many, torture seems like a common sense approach to information extraction. Striking fear into the minds of people withholding vital data does sometimes work in getting people to confess on a day-to-day basis, but not always, and this is almost always psychologically-driven coercion on a very short time scale.

Making physical torture a key part of the repertoire – and engaging in enhanced interrogation for a longer period of time – clearly corrupts the brains of the victims.

Although banned throughout most of Europe since the early 1800s, state-ordered torture was revived by authoritarian regimes including the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Third Reich. It was also used by colonial, democratic powers, like the British and French, during 20th Century counterinsurgency operations across the world. Now, it could be set to make a (second) comeback in the US.

“An authoritarian state, like Hitler's Nazi Germany, would not be too worried about the implications of torture as terror was a part of their ultimate aim,” Moul notes. “Democratic states, on the other hand, rely on values of human dignity and individual rights, as well as a body of international norms and laws to justify their position in the world.”


Of course, these justifications fall flat when even the basic science behind torture, specifically as a means of information extraction, points towards its uselessness – all moral debates notwithstanding.

So when Trump talks about torture being something that “absolutely works,” it’s unlikely any expert has told him that it does. In fact, the way he speaks about the awful, murderous tendencies of groups like ISIS, it suggests he wants to inflict pain on terror subjects for baser, vengeful reasons.

“They hear we’re talking about waterboarding like it’s the worst thing in the world, and they’ve just drowned 100 people and chopped off 50 heads,” Trump said back in 2016. “They must think we are a little bit on the weak side.”


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