March 13, 2008


The Fascination With Isolation: In real-life experiments, mental collapse comes quickly (Michael Mechanic, March 14, 2008, Mother Jones)

When the late Donald O. Hebb, a psychologist at Montreal's McGill University, secured a grant from the Canadian Defence Research Board in 1951 to study how sensory isolation affects the human mind, he found that depriving a person of stimulation can break him in days.

Peter Milner, then Hebb's graduate student and now a professor emeritus at McGill, was working on another project at the time but remembers seeing the sensory-deprivation rooms and watching subjects in frosted-white goggles being led to the bathroom. His mentor had offered male graduate students $20 a day—excellent pay for the '50s—to stay in small chambers with little more than a bed. In addition to the goggles, they wore gloves and cardboard tubes over the arms to limit their sense of touch. A U-shaped pillow and the hum of an air conditioner masked outside noises. "According to his theory, the brain would deteriorate if it didn't have a continuous stream of sensory input," Milner says.

Despite adequate sleep and meals and bathroom breaks, the majority of the young men lasted no more than a few days in isolation, and none more than a week. "Most of the subjects had planned to think about their work: Some intended to review their studies, some to plan term papers, and one thought he would organize a lecture he had to deliver," wrote Woodburn Heron, one of Hebb's collaborators, in "The Pathology of Boredom," a 1957 Scientific American article describing the experiment. "Nearly all of them reported that the most striking thing about the experience was that they were unable to think clearly about anything for any length of time and that their thought processes seemed to be affected in other ways."

A series of tests showed that the volunteers' mental faculties were, in fact, temporarily impaired. The students proved uncharacteristically responsive to arguments that supernatural phenomena, including ghosts and poltergeists, were real. They performed poorly on tests involving simple arithmetic, word associations, and pattern recognition. They also experienced extreme restlessness, childish emotional responses, and vivid hallucinations. "The subjects had little control over the content" of their visions, Heron wrote. "One man could see nothing but dogs, another nothing but eyeglasses of various types, and so on." Nor were these hallucinations merely visual: One volunteer repeatedly heard a music box playing, another a full choir to accompany his vision of a sun rising over a church. "One," Heron wrote, "had a feeling of being hit in the arm by pellets fired from a miniature rocket ship he saw; another reaching out to touch a doorknob in his vision felt an electric shock."

...if imprisonment is itself torture then why ban a clean and effective interrogation technique like waterboarding?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 13, 2008 9:37 AM
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