Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Heart of Darkness: Sensory Deprivation & U.S. Torture -- Where From Here?

Many students and college graduates who have taken a psychology course have probably heard of Jerome S. Bruner. One of America's most famous psychologists, he helped found Harvard's Center for Cognitive Studies. Under Lyndon Johnson, Bruner ran the National Institute of Child Health and Development. His book, The Process of Education, became a classic in the 1960s, with its far-reaching program of school curriculum reform.

Today, Bruner is 91, and still active as Research Professor of Psychology and Senior Research Fellow in Law, at New York University. What's not commonly known is that during World War II, he was conscripted, as so many behavioral scientists were, into the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS). Or that in the later 1950s, Bruner was involved in research in sensory deprivation, much of which was funded by the U.S. government in an attempt to counter so-called Chinese brainwashing, and as part of the U.S. mind control and interrogation programs. Bruner, it seems, was unaware of his role in the latter, as we shall see.

Brainwashing Fascinates the Academy

As part of a massive U.S. program to understand what appeared to some U.S. intelligence observers to be a large brainwashing program by the Russians and the Chinese, U.S. intelligence and the military began recruiting and sponsoring psychiatrists and psychologists to do research on "brainwashing" methodology, including use of hypnosis, drugs, sleep deprivation, and isolation (solitary confinement). But there was a separate and new line of mind control research, whose headquarters were at McGill University in Montreal. There, the famous psychologist Donald O. Hebb, later president of the American Psychological Association, crafted the first large experiments on sensory deprivation from 1951-53.

Hebb's famous article, Drives and the C.N.S. (Conceptual Nervous System), and his pioneer experiments on sensory deprivation, spawned a great deal of interest in the military. And, through the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the money started to flow, reaching numerous universities and medical/psychology departments. Some of the biggest names in the field of behavioral science and medicine became witting and unwitting recruits in a research program that would culminate in a new paradigm of torture interrogation, as exemplified in the CIA's now-famous (and still partly censored) KUBARK interrogation manual of the early 1960s.

As historian Alfred McCoy described it in his book, A Question of Torture:

Although Hebb later admitted, with some sense of remorse, the clandestine source of his funding, he still incorporated findings from the sensory deprivation experiments, without any apparent regrets, into the theoretical relections that contributed to his rising scholarly reputation. In his Essay on Mind, published in 1980 after all the revelvations about CIA funding and Dr. Ewen Camerons's abusive research [at McGill University], Hebb wrote that his "so-called sensory-deprivation experiment" demonstrated "that the integrity of the mind at maturity continues to depend on... the sensory stimulation of the normal complex environment." These tests, Hebb concluded, "supported the prediction that... such [sensory deprivation] conditions would have a disorganizing effect on thought"... (p. 220) [emphases added, not in original]

While Hebb may have been involved, others in the academic research community may not have understood all the implications. Jerome Bruner is an example of the latter. Although he was not without experience in interrogations, having been involved in OSS interrogations during the period surrounding D-Day, Bruner came to a Harvard symposium with a new paper on the effects of early sensory deprivation, which was a special interest of his. Perhaps it was personal: Bruner had been blind for the first two years of his life.

The Harvard Symposium on Sensory Deprivation

According to McCoy, the 1958 Harvard symposium on sensory deprivation was funded covertly through an ONR contract -- Nonr 1866 [29]. Other government agencies had funded much of the individual research done, including the Army, Air Force, and the National Science Foundation. The papers from this symmposium were edited and printed up in a volume that one can still purchase, used, online: Sensory Deprivation, A Symposium Held at Harvard Medical School. One of the book's editors, Philip Kubzansky, was also a an author of an essay entitled "The Effects of Reduced Environmental Stimulation on Human Behavior: A Review", which appeared in another book from the same period, one I've previously reviewed, The Manipulation of Human Behavior. (Kubzansky was also Chief Psychologist at Boston City Hospital at the time.)

Jerome Bruner appears to have been interested in the developmental aspects of sensory deprivation, especially as they affected the neurological and cognitive aspects of a child's maturation. His essay for the symposium as reprinted and can be read entirely on-line (one of the reasons for using it as the centerpiece of this article) by anyone who is interested. It appeared as a stand-alone article in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. XXI, No. 2, in 1959. As a primer in the topic of sensory deprivation, you couldn't ask for a better introduction.

According to Bruner's paper, "The Cognitive Consequences of Early Sensory Deprivation", the whole issue stemmed from a new understanding of the development of perception in the maturing organism. Bruner was conscious of his precursors in the field, and explained their primary discoveries:

For bringing this matter into a proper empirical perspective, we must be grateful for the work of Hebb and his students in investigating the effects of early sensory deprivation in animals. I do not propose to review the work, for it is well known. In general, an impoverished environment, one with diminished heterogeneity and a reduced set of opportunities for manipulation and discrimination produces an adult organism with reduced abilities to discriminate, with stunted strategies for coping with roundabout solutions, with less taste for exploratory behavior, and with a notably reduced tendency to draw inferences that serve to cement the disparate events of its environment...

But Bruner was not just concerned with the effects of early sensory deprivation, as he was aware that the early SD experiments were almost all conducted on adults, and there were effects, usually reversible, that were still psychologically profound. Bruner continued:

... let me remind you of the parallel findings on prolonged sensory deprivation in adult organisms that have the effect of disorganizing cognitive function, upsetting the constancies, even disrupting the perception of continuous contours that extend beyond the immediate focus of attention at the center of the visual field. I remind you of these matters in advance of setting forth some speculations to underline the likelihood that perception and cognitive activity generally depend upon a dynamically stable though ultimately disruptible equilibrium that depends, even in adult life, upon contact with stimulus heterogeneity and a shifting environment. [emphases are mine]

This was something akin to Philip Kubansky's observations of the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation upon an interrogation detainee, as written in The Manipulation of Human Behavior:

The boredom, restlessness, irritability, and other mood changes observed also may well apply. The stimulus-hunger and increased suggestibility which have been observed may make an individual more vulnerable to revealing information he might otherwise withhold, particularly when accompanied by the social uncertainty induced in the interrogation situation. Unprepared for these consequences of isolation and deprivation, like many experimental subjects, an individual may become apprehensive and indeed panicked by his reactions. The appearance of hallucinatory-like phenomena and their emotional accompaniments have often been quite anxiety provoking. (p. 90)
Why Are We Doing This?

Yet, at this Harvard symposium, at the school where he worked for so long, Bruner looked at the other contributions of the behavioral scientists and seemed befuddled. An essay by the psychoanalytic researchers Holt and Goldberger on the personality correlates of response to sensory deprivation flumoxxed him. He wrote:

The work reported by Goldberger and Holt in this symposium on "individual differences in reaction to experimental interference with reality contact" and also by Bennett on the effect of sensory isolation in high altitude flying suggests that people respond differently to the initial stages of isolation, some finding it exciting and even intoxicating, others, terrifying and disrupting. I do not know what bearing this has on our present problem, save that when one is isolated from external stimulation one is thrown on internal resources, and people differ in the degree to which they live comfortably and confidently with their inner impulses and cognitive models.

Bruner seemingly did not see or understand what all this research was reaching for. With his own personal interest in the then-new field of cognitive psychology, and his passion for developmental themes, he overlooked the sponsorship of the Office of Naval Research. After all, it was common enough in those days to have military sponsorship of one's psychological research. Goldberger's work on psychological types had been sponsored, for instance, by the Air Force. But there was a point. The work on isolation and sensory deprivation was to be used in formulating a "scientific" model of interrogation, which in the end amounted to psychological torture.

This new scientific model delineated profound and disturbing vulnerablities in human nature and the ways human beings construct reality. As the physicists did with atomic physics, the psychologists and psychiatrists researching isolation, sensory and sleep deprivation, responses to various drugs, and to hypnotism, had discovered some important aspects to the workings of our minds and bodies... and they would use it to construct technologies of destruction and governmental control.

In brief, what did they discover? According to Peter Suedfeld, a psychologist writing 10 years after Bruner's paper, in a retrospective on SD research, these behavioral scientists had discovered "a manipulation that made a difference -- unlike so many pallid experimental situations, a difference you could almost taste." (Sensory Deprivation: Fifteen Years of Research, ed. J. P. Zubek, Appleton-Century-Crofts, NY, 1969, p. 3)

Sensory deprivation research touched on more than deprivation, it covered aspects of human psychological and physiological functioning under conditions of isolation, sensory blurring, near-total deprivation, personality and drug interactions, among other potential effects. It posited human beings as sensation-seeking organisms (and not just humans, but higher animals). In fact, the need for stimulation was raised to the status of a human drive or instinct. Along the lines of the cognitive psychologists, like Bruner, who were coming into prominence at this time, the patterning of stimuli and perception was seen as linked to some kind of relatively stable environment. As Bruner pointed out, if that environment, or the cognitive map a person had made of an expected environment were to change radically, or become random, or unfocused, the organism/nervous system responded maladaptively. Negative changes took place along a number of psychological dimensions: cognitive, emotional, stress tolerance, susceptiblity to persuasion, etc.

As Hebb pointed out at the 1958 Harvard Symposium, the whole SD research project began as an attempt to understand and counter what was believed to be a Russian and Chinese Cold War project to control others' behavior and minds. They called it "brainwashing". In the end, they twisted it into a form of coercive interrogation that was utilized by the CIA and military up to the present day.

From Harvard Yard to Guantanamo Bay

From PHR's essential book, Break Them Down:

A legal memorandum prepared by Lt. Col. Diane E. Beaver in October 2002 considered the legality of the techniques proposed for use at Guantánamo. The memorandum approved the use of waterboarding, isolation, sensory deprivation, removal of clothing, hooding, and exploitation of detainees’ phobias. (p. 46)

Not surprisingly, behavioral specialists were called upon to monitor and consult on these torture techniques. Psychologists were utilized because they had special expertise in areas such as... well, sensory deprivation!

Col. Thomas M. Pappas, the head of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib, described to General Taguba how that worked in practice.

If the interrogation plan falls within the outline set by LTG Sanchez then the O5 Deputy Director or myself approve the plans. Those interrogation plans include a sleep plan and medical standards. A physician and a psychiatrist are on hand to monitor what we are doing.
. . .
Typically, the MP has a copy of the interrogation plan and a written note as to how to execute. There should also be files in the detainee files as to what is going on when an exception is needed. The interrogator uses these files to keep a record as to what has happened to the detainee. The doctor and psychiatrist also look at the files to see what the interrogation plan recommends; they have the final say as to what is implemented.... At Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, “behavioral science consultation teams” (hereinafter BSCT), composed of psychologists and psychiatrists, were formed with the purpose of facilitating interrogation. (p. 46-47)

None of this was really new. The old CIA KUBARK manual, which directed its interrogators in counterintelligence "interviews" made clear that "experts" were often needed, and that sensory deprivation, among other psychological forms of torture, was to be utilized.

As this selection from the CIA's "Interrogator Checklist" makes clear, psychological knowledge of the type we have been discussing here, is necessary in the torture chamber:

6. Does the interrogators selected for the task meet the four criteria of (a) adequate training and experience, (b) genuine familiarity with the language to be used, (c) knowledge of the geographical/cultural area concerned, and (d) psychological comprehension of the interrogatee?

7. Has the prospective interrogatee been screened? What are his major psychological characteristics? Does he belong to one of the nine major categories listed in pp. 19-28? Which? ....

41. As above, for confinement. If the interrogates is to be confined, can KUBARK control his environment fully? Can the normal routines be disrupted for interrogation purposes?

42. Is solitary confinement to be used? Why? Does the place of confinement permit the practical elimination of sensory stimuli?

43. Are threats to be employed? As part of a plan? Has the nature of the threat been matched to that of the interrogatee?

44. If hypnosis or drugs are thought necessary, has Headquarters been given enough advance notice? Has adequate allowance been made for travel time and other preliminaries?

45. Is the interrogatee suspected of malingering? If the interrogator is uncertain, are the services of an expert available?

An Action Call

In other postings, I have called for the public to place pressure upon the American Psychological Association to stop its members from participating in coercive intelligence interrogations, i.e., in torture! Because a portion of the APA membership is fighting for such a moratorium, the American public is in a unique position to vote, in a manner of speaking, on the use of torture by the U.S. government, by calling and writing APA top office holders and telling them "We don't want any participation in torture or coercive intelligence or military interrogations."

For more details on this campaign, click here. Or go ahead and write directly to the President of the American Psychological Association by clicking through to this link, which the APA calls "Ask the President".

We can make a difference. The history of science and psychology cannot be hijacked by a group of militarists and jingoists in order to maintain an immoral interrogation program of torture and inhumane treatment. Ask yourself, what have I done to change this barbarous practice, then do something about it!

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