Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Your brain on torture

Excellent article by Sharon Begley of Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/id/215922) discussing the neurological effects of torture on the brain. The upshot of the article is that there is significant physical and neurological evidence to show that torture is ineffective to produce valuable information. Given what is sure to come from former vice president Dick Cheney and his supporters, this is yet another pillar in the base of the argument against torture.

It's also kind of fun to read the author trying to be a scientist and not take a political position, even though it's clear as glass that a political position is exactly what she's taking. But that's another story.


The Tortured Brain
Extreme pain and stress can actually impair a person's ability to tell the truth.
By Sharon Begley | Newsweek Web Exclusive

Sep 21, 2009

While we wait for Dick Cheney, the Pentagon, or the CIA to release evidence that "enhanced interrogation techniques" produced useful, truthful intelligence that could not be obtained without torture, neuroscientists are weighing in on how likely torture is to elicit such information—and they are not impressed.

It's become the conventional wisdom that the tortured will say anything to make the torture stop, and that "anything" need not be truthful as long as it is what the torturers want to hear. But years worth of studies in neuroscience, as well as new research, suggest that there are, in addition, fundamental aspects of neurochemistry that increase the chance that information obtained under torture will not be truthful.

The backstory. The inspector general of the CIA last month released a 2004 report on the interrogation of Al Qaeda suspects. As my colleague Mark Hosenball reported, it and other internal documents (which Cheney called on the CIA to release, believing they would back his claim) do not show that torture worked. In fact, The New York Times reported, the documents "do not refer to any specific interrogation methods and do not assess their effectiveness."

Scientists do not pretend to know, in any individual case, whether torture might extract useful information. But as neurobiologist Shane O'Mara of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin explains in a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciencecalled "Torturing the Brain," "the use of such techniques appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect. Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or 'enhanced' interrogation."

The CIA documents released last month implicitly set forth a specific scientific rationale for enhanced interrogation: someone possesses information in his long-term memory, withholds it under normal questioning, and releases it as a result of prolonged periods of coercive interrogation. That rationale seems to be "seem based on the idea that repeatedly inducing shock, stress, anxiety, disorientation and lack of control is more effective than standard interrogatory techniques," says O'Mara, who was one of nine scientists appointed to the Panel of Experts of Ireland's Chief Scientific Adviser earlier this year.

So let's break this down anatomically. Fact One: To recall information stored in the brain, you must activate a number of areas, especially the prefrontal cortex (site of intentionality) and hippocampus (the door to long-term memory storage). Fact Two: Stress such as that caused by torture releases the hormone cortisol, which can impair cognitive function, including that of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Studies in which soldiers were subjected to stress in the form of food and sleep deprivation have found that it impaired their ability to recall personal memories and information, as this 2006 study reported. "Studies of extreme stress with Special Forces Soldiers have found that recall of previously-learned information was impaired after stress occurred," notes O'Mara. "Water-boarding in particular is an extreme stressor and has the potential to elicit widespread stress-induced changes in the brain."

Stress also releases catecholamines such as noradrenaline, which can enlarge the amygdale (structures involved in the processing of fear), also impairing memory and the ability to distinguish a true memory from a false or implanted one. Brain imaging of torture victims, as in this study, suggest why: torture triggers abnormal patterns of activation in the frontal and temporal lobes, impairing memory. Rather than a question triggering a (relatively) simple pattern of brain activation that leads to the stored memory of information that can answer the question, the question stimulates memories almost chaotically, without regard to their truthfulness.

These neurochemical effects set the stage for two serious pitfalls of interrogation under torture, argues O'Mara. The first is that "information presented by the captor to elicit responses during interrogation may inadvertently become part of the suspect's memory, especially since suspects are under extreme stress and are required to tell and retell the same events which may have happened over a period of years." As a result, information produced by the suspect may parrot or embellish suggestions from the interrogators rather than revealing something both truthful and unknown to the interrogators. Second, cortisol-induced damage to the prefrontal cortex can cause confabulation, or false memories. Because a person being tortured loses the ability to distinguish between true and false memories, as a 2008 study showed, further pain and stress does not cause him to tell the truth, but to retreat further into a fog where he cannot tell true from false.

The other barrier to eliciting truthful information through torture is that the captive quickly learns that, as O'Mara puts it, "while I'm talking, I'm not being water-boarded." In other words, speaking = relief from pain. That conditions the suspect to speak at all costs, not distinguishing between what is true and what is made up. "To briefly summarize a vast, complex literature: prolonged and extreme stress inhibits the biological processes believed to support memory in the brain," says O'Mara. "Coercive interrogations involving extreme stress are unlikely, given our current cognitive neurobiological knowledge, to facilitate the release of veridical information from long-term memory."

In what is probably a futile effort to avert a flood of pro-torture comments and e-mails, let me point out that whenever science learns something about the brain, it is always possible that the generalization fails to apply to some particular brains. Maybe the brains of Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded 83 times, and of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, are different, and their torture elicited truthful information. Neuroscientists would very much like to see the evidence of that.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

NU Re-View: Nebraska 38, Arkansas State 9

- EXPLOSIVENESS: Nebraska started to show a bit of the additional speed and athleticism that will make Shawn Watson's offense more difficult to handle. Although it was called back, Niles Paul's scamper down the sideline was a thing to marvel at - and worry about if you're game-planning against NU.
- PUTTING THE CLAMPS DOWN: Once again, Nebraska did well in preventing their opponent from cashing in on time of possession and success moving the ball between the twenties. There is something to be said for an effective red zone defense.
- ME TOO, ME TOO!: Nebraska showed more zone read option against the Red Wolves, with Zac Lee keeping the ball and taking off upfield. It's unclear if that was by design to give Virginia Tech something to worry about, or if it was Lee's idea to show that Cody Green isn't the only one who can run the ball. Of course, Lee didn't go 45 yards down the sideline ...

- FLASHBACKS: Remember when NU's defense let people go between the twenties but not score under a certain Kevin Cosgrove? It was called a "bend but don't break" defense, and 'Husker fan lost his freaking mind about it. It's not any less dangerous when a "BBDB" defense is employed by Mr. Carlfense, even if people like him better than Cosgrove.
- POWER OUTAGE: If there were any struggles for NU against Arkansas State, it was the lack of ability to consistently run between the tackles. Being able to do so will be critical for success against Virginia Tech. It remains to be seen whether Nebraska chose not to go heavy, or whether they just lack the ability to do so.
- SLOPPY SECOND (HALF): Once the game was decided, it looked for all the world like Nebraska lost interest in the game. Particularly in the second half, poor execution on both sides of the ball and penalties plagued Nebraska. It's not a good sign going into a hostile environment to have the team lose focus.

Virginia Tech week is finally here. Nebraska has an opportunity to take the "can't beat a ranked team" monkey off its' collective backs, and to establish themselves a national presence. They also have the ability to throw up a clunker and undo a lot of the national goodwill earned by their Gator Bowl win over Clemson. Yes, Virginia (Tech), this is a big game.

Given how badly the Big XII North is starting to look (staring right at you, Dan Hawkins), a win in Blacksburg is Nebraska's best opportunity to get a marquee win. The Hokies have injuries on defense and are down to a third-string tailback. They looked inept offensively against Alabama, a team that Utah shredded. This game looked like a huge longshot at the end of last year. Now, it could really be a springboard for Nebraska.

Nebraska @ Virginia Tech (-3). Look for NU to go back to more of a ball-control offense like they ran in Lubbock, with the intent of keeping Tyrod Taylor on the sidelines. Don't be at all surprised to see one of Nebraska's big-hitting safeties (see Thenarse, Ricky) spying Taylor and daring VT to beat the Blackshirts with his arm. To win, Nebraska needs to have a lot better ball control then they have in their first two games, and to establish a power running game to set up Lee's play-action and allow NU's playmakers to get loose. All of those are doable. This game is razor close, so take Nebraska and the points.
FEARLESS FORECAST: Pelini gets the signature win Callahan never could. Alex Henery is the hero, converting more stalled drives into points than VT's kicker. Nebraska 20, Virginia Tech 16.

GBR, baby.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

NU Re-View: Nebraska 49, Florida Atlantic 3

- BALANCING ACT: After a creaky first quarter, Nebraska's offense found rhythm and balance. Nebraska ended the game with 259 yards passing and 231 yards rushing, and you could tell as the second half started the difficulty defenses had in handling Nebraska's attack. NU's first two scoring drives of the second half were almost effortless, and ended any threat of an FAU comeback.
- SCORING DEFENSE: Florida Atlantic moved the ball effectively between the 20's, but never really threatened to score on Nebraska. Even though FAU ended up with more time of possession than Nebraska (something that was NU's strong point last year and a sign that the 'Husker offense may be more explosive in 2009), the net result ended up with a comfortable win.
- RIBBON-TASTIC: The new ribbon boards really work well, offering in-game statistics, crowd chants, and hi-def Dorothy Lynch advertisements. As a stat geek, having more information available to me during the game just makes the experience even better.

- ABUNDANCE OF YELLOW: Nebraska had nine penalties for 86 yards, including a late hit penalty that kept FAU's only scoring drive alive and wiped out an interception. Again, it's the first game, so you expect a little bit of rustiness, but NU cannot afford to give away that much yardage to stronger opponents.
- THEY ALL ADD UP: Sure FAU didn't score from all the yardage they accumulated, but they still accumulated it. That's got to be an area of concern for Bo Pelini and the Blackshirts. If FAU had some more dangerous athletes on the field, there's no question that they could have cashed in with something on the scoreboard.
- SOMEONE HIT REFRESH! While having stats on the ribbon board is great, it's not so great when the stats aren't updated. Or even close to being updated. Throughout halftime, the ribbon board told the crowd that Zac Lee was 4-6 for 39 yards and a touchdown. That was great, if it was in the middle of the first quarter, when those numbers were accurate. Unfortunately, it was halftime, and Lee already had a 51-yard strike to Curenski Gilleylen. Come on, guys, you dropped about a bajillion dollars for the hi-def jumbo tee-vee machines, you should get the stats right on them.

This game was hauntingly familiar to Nebraska opening games of yore, when a minnow would come to town, NU would struggle a little early, then pull away late. As my brother commented, it was a little strange to be able to space out during the third quarter knowing the game was in hand. Now, we've seen false dawns before - remember, the dreaded 2007 campaign that got Bill Callahan fired began with a 52-10 thumping of Nevada. But at least for one night, it was fun to feel Memorial Stadium brimming with confidence and enthusiasm.

The 'Huskers did about all you could ask of them in their opener. The new guys (particularly Zac Lee) looked a little sluggish to start out, but got their legs under them and ended up with a dominating win. What that means will really only be known after Nebraska's trip to Blacksburg in two weeks. But up to this point, year two of the Pelini regime is encouraging.

Nebraska's tour of the Sun Belt conference continues when the Arkansas State Red Wolves arrive in Lincoln next week. The good thing about their last game is that it was against FCS Mississippi Valley State. The bad news is that Arkansas State won 61-0. I don't care how bad the opponent is, 61 points is 61 points. ASU did most of their damage on the ground, the polar opposite of air-it-out FAU. Nebraska's vaunted front four and their rushing defense will get quite the test.
FEARLESS FORECAST: Pending release of the early line on the game


GBR, baby.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Ike on civic duty

Really good article by Max Blumenthal of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/03/opinion/03blumenthal.html) discussing President Eisenhower's letter to a soldier extoling the virtues of democracy. I know, sounds corny, but the salient point in the piece is when Ike talks about the allure of totalitarianism being that citizens are not required to actively think about hard issues. They're just told what to believe and can have certainty in those beliefs.

Think about what we're seeing today, specifically from the town hall protesters wanting to "keep Government out of Medicaid." It's not unique to the right-wing, of course, it's just that's been the most recent and most obvious display.

The bottom line is that being a citizen in a democracy is hard work, and far too many people are abdicating that work and allowing themselves to be told what to think. Solving that problem, then, becomes much more systemic and generational - and a lot, lot harder.

It's like the memorable line in the otherwise-forgettable movie "The American President." In that scene, the impressionable young aid tells the president that the people are buying into the argument of his demagogic opponent because, metaphorically, they are in the desert and eating sand because they have nothing else. The president wearily responds that they eat the sand not because they have nothing else, but because they don't know the difference.


IN this summer of town hall disruptions and birth-certificate controversies, a summer when it seemed as if the Republican Party had been captured by its extremist wing, it is worth recalling a now-obscure letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Eisenhower is commonly remembered for a farewell address that raised concerns about the “military-industrial complex,” his letter offers an equally important — and relevant — warning: to beware the danger posed by those seeking freedom from the “mental stress and burden” of democracy.

The story began in 1958, when Eisenhower received a letter from Robert Biggs, a terminally ill World War II veteran. Biggs told the president that he “felt from your recent speeches the feeling of hedging and a little uncertainty.” He added, “We wait for someone to speak for us and back him completely if the statement is made in truth.”

Eisenhower could have discarded Biggs’s note or sent a canned response. But he didn’t. He composed a thoughtful reply. After enduring Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who had smeared his old colleague Gen. George C. Marshall as a Communist sympathizer, and having guarded the Republican Party against the newly emergent radical right John Birch Society, which labeled him and much of his cabinet Soviet agents, the president perhaps welcomed the opportunity to expound on his vision of the open society.

“I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed,” Eisenhower wrote on Feb. 10, 1959. “Such unity is not only logical but indeed indispensable in a successful military organization, but in a democracy debate is the breath of life.”

Eisenhower also recommended a short book — “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer, a self-educated itinerant longshoreman who earned the nickname “the stevedore philosopher.” “Faith in a holy cause,” Hoffer wrote, “is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

Though Eisenhower was criticized for lacking an intellectual framework or even an interest in ideas, he was drawn to Hoffer’s insights. He explained to Biggs that Hoffer “points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems — freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.” The authoritarian follower, Eisenhower suggested, desired nothing more than insulation from the pressures of a free society.

Alluding to Senator McCarthy and his allies, Eisenhower pointed out that cold war fears were distorted and exploited for political advantage. “It is difficult indeed to maintain a reasoned and accurately informed understanding of our defense situation on the part of our citizenry when many prominent officials, possessing no standing or expertness as they themselves claim it, attempt to further their own ideas or interests by resorting to statements more distinguished by stridency than by accuracy.”

It is worth noting, of course, that these Cold War exaggerations weren’t just a Republican specialty: John F. Kennedy was making a supposed “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union a key element of his presidential campaign.

In closing his letter, Eisenhower praised Biggs for his “fortitude in pondering these problems despite your deep personal adversity.” Perhaps it was the president’s sense of solidarity with a fellow soldier that prompted him to respond to Biggs with such care; and perhaps it was his experience as supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe that taught him that the rise of extreme movements and authoritarianism could take root anywhere — even in a democracy.

Max Blumenthal is the author of “Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party.”