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'White Torture' Is A Sensory Deprivation Method That Erases All Sense Of Reality

Updated September 3, 2019 76.4k views12 items
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Governments and institutions have debated the ethics behind torture for centuries. More recently, photographs, news sources, and stories of former prisoners have sparked questioning over multiple governments' use of extreme torture methods against its enemies. While the Geneva Convention of 1949 declared some torture practices inhumane, mental torture exists in a gray area, as it doesn't leave physical marks. So-called "white torture" uses sensory deprivation techniques to make prisoners hallucinate and experience breakdowns that make them highly susceptible to psychological manipulation.

First studied in 1951 as a possible way to allow British, American, and Canadian governments to brainwash prisoners, white torture occurs when individuals are placed in a confined area with highly controlled access to light, sound, or human interaction. The technique increases the mental pliability of prisoners; they become desperate for human interaction, even in the form of harsh interrogation from their captors.

  • A 1954 Study Proved The Effectiveness Of The Method

    In 1951, psychologist Donald Hebb paid 22 male graduate students $20 to voluntarily participate in a stimuli removal study. Volunteers wore clothing, padding around the ears and hands, a visor, and other accoutrements that inhibited their senses of sight, sound, and touch. They were only allowed breaks for food and other necessities. Their only stimulation came from an air conditioning unit that constantly gave off white noise. Prior to the experiment, the students took tests assessing their mental capacity as well as their beliefs. After their voluntary extraction from the study, testing proved a decrease in the students' ability to complete simple mathematic equations and other elementary cognitive functions.

    The students also answered questions about their thoughts on the existence of ghosts. After two or three days of isolation, those previously opposed to belief in the supernatural had open minds about the possibility spirits are real.

  • Sensory Deprivation Warps People's Sense Of Time

    A French scientist named Michel Siffre conducted a geological study in 1962 in which he planned to observe an underground glacier in the Alps. The study was only supposed to last for two weeks, but he extended it to two months and changed the focus to study human chronobiology. He planned to "live like an animal," without modern conveniences or sunlight.

    Siffre hoped to determine whether humans have a natural internal clock. He called researchers posted outside of the cave when he ate, woke up, and just before he went to sleep so they could keep track of what time he carried out each activity. In one cognitive test, his team had him count 120 seconds. They found it took Siffre five minutes to count two minutes, meaning he "psychologically experienced five real minutes as though they were two."

    When the CIA detained Mohamed Ben Soud in total darkness, he was unable to track the days authorities held him captive. Many individuals who spend extended periods of time with no light eventually experience a 48-hour sleep cycle rather than the typical 24, which impairs their ability to track time accurately.

  • Sensory Deprivation May Leave No Physical Mark, So It's Often Overlooked

    Waterboarding is an interrogation technique that involves pouring water into a prisoner's breathing passages to approximate the feeling of being drowned. The practice gained popularity during the Spanish Inquisition and continued until it was outlawed by the Geneva Convention in 1949; the technique's deleterious physical effects place it firmly in the category of torture. When the Bush administration deemed waterboarding an appropriate method of interrogation after the 9/11 attacks, the policy stirred outrage among the American public.

    White torture or sensory deprivation, however, is psychological in nature and therefore presents more difficulty in classification as a form of inhumane treatment. Furthermore, because there is no standard in sensory deprivation—it involves different levels of stimulus removal, from mild isolation to physical impairment—it's difficult to outlaw generally.

  • Photo: jmiller291 / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    A CIA Handbook Promoted The Method In 1963

    Discovered in 1997, the KUBARK, a CIA instruction manual detailing accepted methods for questioning detainees, dates back to 1963. John Lilly, an eccentric researcher, conducted many of the studies listed in the handbook. It called for the deprivation of all stimuli to coerce confessions or intelligence from subjects as a basic tool of interrogation. According to KUBARK, the force of loneliness on the subjects of sensory deprivation, coupled with a complete lack of auditory, visual, or physical interaction, creates a significant amount of stress.

    Once stress overtook the subject, their willingness to interact with anyone, even their captor, outweighed previous reservations to provide information.