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CIA Sensory Deprivation Torture

CIA Sensory Deprivation Torture

What is sensory deprivation torture and how does it affect the mind?

When it comes to the extraction of information, the CIA is head of the pack. Faced with a strong public opposition during the Bush administration for its controversial interrogation methods, the agency has long stood by its’ techniques, but why? What exactly are those interrogation methods agency’s like the CIA use, and what makes them so effective?

Sensory Deprivation

Sensory deprivation is perhaps the most popular type of torture. Otherwise known as perceptual isolation, sensory deprivation involves removing stimuli – light, sound, smell – from one or more of the senses. On an everyday basis, sensory deprivation remains the punishment for disobedient prisoners around the world. Almost every prison in the world has a solitary confinement cell that has some level of sensory deprivation, and some inmates are subjected to such conditions for months and even years at a time.

guantanamo bay cuba camp delta

Camp Delta Guantanamo Bay Cuba

Image Credit: Kathleen T. Rhem, 2005.

But on a much darker, somewhat more occasional basis, solitary confinement and sensory deprivation can be used to break a suspects will in order to obtain information vital to national security. The U.S. Government came under extreme public pressure to close prisons such as Guantanamo Bay, when it emerged that the U.S. Military and CIA were using torture methods such as sensory deprivation and waterboarding, on suspected terrorists. Nevertheless exposing detainees to sensory deprivation, and the practice of waterboard still remain two of the fundemental torture techniques.

Effects of Sensory Deprivation

When it comes to interrogation, sensory deprivation would be the first level of torture used to get confessions and information from suspects terrorists.

solitary confinement gladstone gaol

Solitary Confinement Sensory Deprivation

Image Credit: FairV8, 2010.

Studies have shown that as just quarter of an hour with no light or sound can have drastic effects on a persons mental well being. An Wired article noted a study on 19 healthy volunteers who were placed in cells with no light and sound for 15 minutes.

Amongst the feedback from the participants, nearly all experienced some form of hallucination. Some saw faces, or shapes and objects that weren’t there. Others noted heightened sense of smell and a few reported feeling an evil presence in the room. Regardless of what they saw, or didn’t see, nearly all the participants reported experiencing something ‘very special or important’ during the experiment.

The results backup a widely accepted theory known as ‘faulty source monitoring’ – when the brain misidentifies the source of what it’s experiencing. Under normal circumstances the brain is able to differentiate between the thought inside out head and what is happening on the outside, however when void of natural stimuli the brain becomes confused and starts to interpret the thoughts that are typically contained within our minds, as being on the outside.

Experiments into the effects of sensory deprivation have been going since the 50s when Canadian scientists suspected POWs had been subject to such conditions, then brainwashed into confessing to being war criminals during live international press conferences. To support their claim, the scientists began collecting data to prove the sensory deprivation induced psychosis.

Studies into sensory deprivation have not all been behind closed doors. In 2008, British documentary series Horizon featured an episode in which 6 volunteers agreed to being shut alone inside a completely dark cell in a nuclear bunker, for 48 hours.

While two of the subjects coped better than the others, all reported experiencing hallucinations which included seeing mosquitoes, fighter plans, cars, zebras and the feeling of as strange presence in the room.

Now, extend these periods of sensory deprivation longer than 15 minutes, and throw in the fear of a life in incarceration, pain or even death, and you’ve got a technique almost guaranteed to break even the thoughest of souls.

Brian Keenan, who spent four years as a hostage in Lebanon, talked to the BBC about his experiences in which he was kept alone in complete darkness for up to 10 months at a time.

“The nothingness, that was extremely hard. Because the question in your head is how am I going to get through the next 10 minutes? Or months later, how am I going to get through the next day? Is there enough left in my head?”

“I remember one occasion waking up and having to squeeze my face and my chest and thinking to myself ‘Am I still alive?'”[BBC]

Restircted Environmental Stimulation Therapy

Despite the extremely inhuman ways sensory deprivation can be employed, there are ways we can use the technique to our benefit. Holistic therapies such as Chamber Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) and Floatation Tank (REST) utilizes sensory deprivation to help the subject relax.

In the Chamber REST session, the user enters a sound-proofed, sound-reducing and completely darken room with a bed, food and drink and toilet facilities. The the user simply lies on the bed, making use of the facilities as and when is needed. The session lasts for 24 hours, and although users do have the option to leave before time, less then 10% actually do.

Floatation tank therapy is the same basic principle, except that user floats in salty water inside a small soundproof pod. The salt density of the water makes it safe to float without worry of drowning, and induces a feeling similar to floating in zero gravity. Sessions in the floatation tank are typically purchased by the hour.


I-sopod Floatation Tank

Image Credit: I-Sopod, 2011.

The therapy is said to be so effective that once users get comfortable with their surroundings – perhaps after one or two sessions – it is possible to let the mind flow into a hyper creative or even hallucinogenic state, an experience I might add that nearly all users report as being euphoric, life changing and most of all, relaxing.

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