The hidden history of war on terror torture

The Hidden Persuaders project has interviewed neuropsychologist Tim Shallice about his opposition to the British government’s use of ‘enhanced interrogation’ in the Northern Ireland conflict of the 1970s – a practice eventually abandoned as torture.

Shallice is little known to the wider public but is one of the most important and influential neuropsychologists of his generation, having pioneered the systematic study of neurological problems as a window on typical cognitive function.

One of his first papers was not on brain injury, however, it was an article titled ‘Ulster depth interrogation techniques and their relation to sensory deprivation research’ where he set out a cognitive basis for why the ‘five techniques’ – wall-standing, hooding, white noise, sleep deprivation, and deprivation of food and drink – amounted to torture.

Shallice traces a link between the use of these techniques and research on sensory deprivation – which was investigated both by regular scientists for reasons of scientific curiosity, and as we learned later, by intelligence services while trying to understand ‘brain washing’.

The use of these techniques in Northern Ireland was subject to an official investigation and Shallice and other researchers testified to the Parker Committee which led Prime Minister Edward Heath to ban the practice.

If those techniques sound eerily familiar, it is because they formed the basis of interrogation practices at Guantanamo Bay and other notorious sites in the ‘war on terror’.

The Hidden Persuaders is a research project at Birkbeck, University of London, which is investigating the history of ‘brainwashing’. It traces the practice to its use by the British during the colonisation of Yemen, who seemed to have borrowed it off the KGB.

And if you want to read about the modern day effects of the abusive techniques, The New York Times has just published a disturbing feature article about the long-term consequences of being tortured in Guantanamo and other ‘black sites’ by following up many of the people subject to the brutal techniques.

Link to Hidden Persuaders interview with Tim Shallice.
Link to NYT on long-term legacy of war on terror torture.

Hallucinating sleep researchers

I just stumbled across a fascinating 2002 paper where pioneering sleep researcher Allan Hobson describes the effect of a precisely located stroke he suffered. It affected the medulla in his brain stem, important for regulating sleep, and caused total insomnia and a suppression of dreaming.

In one fascinating section, Hobson describes the hallucinations he experienced, likely due to his inability to sleep or dream, which included disconnected body parts and a hallucinated Robert Stickgold – another well known sleep researcher.

Between Days 1 and 10 I could visually perceive a vault over my supine body immediately upon closing my eyes. The vault resembled the bottom of a swimming pool but the gunitelike surface of the vault could be not only aqua, but also white or beige and, more rarely, engraved obsidian or of a gauzelike nature mixed with ice or glass crystals.

There were three categories of formed imagery that appeared on these surfaces. In the first category of geologic forms the imagery tended to be protomorphic and crude but often gave way to the more elaborate structures of category two inanimate sculptural forms.

The most amusing of these (which occurred on the fourth night) were enormous lucite telephone/computers. But there were also tables and tableaux in which the geologic forms sometimes took unusual and bizarre shapes. One that I recall is a TV-set-like representation of a tropical landscape.

In category three, the most elaborate forms have human anatomical elements, including long swirling flesh, columns that metamorphosed into sphincters, nipples, and crotches, but these were never placed in real bodies.

In fact whole body forms almost never emerged. Instead I saw profiles of faces and profiles of bodies which were often inextricably mixed with penises, noses, lips, eyebrows; torsos arose out of the sculptural columns of flesh and sank back into them again.

The most fully realized human images include my wife, featuring her lower anatomy and (most amusingly) a Peter Pan-like Robert Stickgold and two fairies enjoying a bedtime story. While visual disturbances are quire common in Wallenberg’s syndrome, they have only been reported to occur in waking with eyes open.

Blurring of vision (which I had), and the tendency of objects to appear to move called oscillopsia (which I did not have), are attributed to the disturbed oculomotor and vestibular physiology.


Link to locked report of Hobson’s stroke.

Making the personal, geospatial

CC licensed photo by Flickr user Paul Townsend. Click for origin.There is an old story in London, and it goes like this. Following extensive rioting, there is an impassioned debate about the state of society with some saying it shows moral decay while others claim it demonstrates the desperation of poverty.

In 1886, London hosted one of its regular retellings when thousands of unemployed people trashed London’s West End during two days of violent disturbances.

In the weeks of consternation that followed, the press stumbled on the work of wealthy ship owner Charles Booth who had begun an unprecedented project – mapping poverty across the entire city.

He started the project because he thought Henry Hyndman was bullshitting.

Hyndman, a rather too earnest social campaigner, claimed that 1 in 4 Londoners lived in poverty, a figure Booth scoffed at as a gross exaggeration.

So Booth paid for an impressive team of researchers and sent to them out to interview officials who assessed families for compulsory schooling and he created a map, initially of the East End, and eventually as far west as Hammersmith, of every house and the social state of the families within it.

Each dwelling was classified into seven gradations – from “Wealthy; upper middle and upper classes” to “Lowest class; vicious, semi-criminal”. For the first time, deprivation could be seen etched into London’s social landscape.

I suspect that the term ‘vicious’ referred to its older meaning: ‘of given to vice’- rather than cruel. But what Booth created, for the first time and in exceptional detail, was a map of social environments.

The map is amazingly detailed. Literally, a house by house mapping of the whole of London.

The results showed that Hyndman was indeed wrong, but not in the direction Booth assumed. He found 1 in 3 Londoners lived below the poverty line.

If you know a bit about the capital today, you can see how many of the deprived areas from 1886 are still some of the most deprived in 2016.

So I was fascinated when I read about a new study that allows poverty to be mapped from the air, using machine learning to analyse satellite images Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, and Rwanda.

But rather than pre-defining what counts as an image of a wealthy area (swimming pools perhaps?) compared to an impoverished one (unpaved roads maybe), they trained a neural network learn its own associations between image properties and income on an initial set of training data before trying it out on new data sets.

The neural network could explain up to 75% of the variation in the local economy.

Knowing both the extent and geography of poverty is massively important. It allows a macro view of something that manifests in very local ways, mapping it to street corners, housing blocks and small settlements.

It makes the vast forces of the economy, personal.

Link to Booth’s poverty map.
Link to Science reporting of satellite mapping study.

The science of urban paranoia

CC Licensed Image by Flickr user 01steven. Click for source.I’ve got an article in The Atlantic on how paranoia and psychosis are more common in cities and why the quest to explain the ‘urban psychosis effect’ is reshaping psychiatry.

The more urban your neighbourhood, the higher the rate of diagnosed schizophrenia and you are more likely to experience what are broadly known as ‘non-affective psychosis-psychoses’ – that is, delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia not primarily caused by mood problems.

This has led to a long and ongoing debate about why this is, with some arguing that it is an effect of city-living on the mind, while others arguing the association is better explained by a complex interaction between genetic risk factors and limited life chances.

The article discusses the science behind exactly this debate, partly a judgement on the value of the city itself, and notes how it’s pushing psychiatry to re-examine how it deals with what is often euphemistically called ‘the environment’.

Link to ‘The Mystery of Urban Psychosis’ in The Atlantic.

A podcast on drugs

If you’re a podcast addict, you could no worse than checking out Say Why to Drugs an excellent new show that covers the science behind a different recreational drug each week.

The podcast is with psychologist and drugs researcher Suzi Gage and rhyme-smith Scroobius Pip, better known for his banging tunes.

They make for a great partnership and they breakdown everything from the psychopharmacology of MDMA to the social impact of ketamine and do plenty of myth-busting along the way.

Thoroughly listenable, good fun and great on the science, you can find it on acast and iTunes.

Link to podcast on ITunes
Link to podcast on acast

Spike activity 24-06-2016

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Why do some children thrive in adult life despite a background of violence and neglect? Fascinating piece from Mosaic.

Scientific American asks with the flood of neuroscience PhDs, where will all the neuroscientists go? Ask British neuroscientists, they’re probably weighing up their options right now.

Blobs and Pitfalls: Challenges for fMRI Research. Neuroskeptic covers one of a number of ‘rethinking fMRI research pieces’ that has recently come out.

Neurocritic casts a skeptical over several new oxytocin papers that have appeared.

Was Dr. Asperger A Nazi? The Question Still Haunts Autism. A complex question tackled over at NPR.

Psychodiagnosticator asks What do we talk about when we talk about schizophrenia?

There’s a fascinating discussion on language and the culture of internal meaning over at The Psychologist.

Invisibilia, NPR’s people and cognitive science show, has just kicked off a new series.

Sleight of mind in fMRI

I’ve written a piece for the BPS Research Digest about a fascinating study that caused people to feel their thoughts were being controlled by outside forces.

It’s a psychologically intriguing study because it used the psychology lab to conduct the study but it also used the psychology lab as a form of misdirection, so participants wouldn’t realise that the effect of having their ‘thoughts read’ and ‘thoughts inserted into their mind’ was in fact a common trick used in stage mentalism.

The interesting bit came where the researchers recorded whether participants reacted differently when they thought their thoughts were being read (they did) and asked about their experience of it happening (when it never actually did).

They reported a range of anomalous effects when they thought numbers were being “inserted” into their minds: A number “popped in” my head, reported one participant. Others described “a voice … dragging me from the number that already exists in my mind”, feeling “some kind of force”, feeling “drawn” to a number, or the sensation of their brain getting “stuck” on one number. All a striking testament to the power of suggestion.

A really wonderfully conceived study that may provide a useful tool for temporarily inducing the feeling of not controlling your own thoughts – something that occurs in a range of psychological difficulties and disorders.

Link to piece on BPS Research Digest.