Sometimes called “no touch torture,” psychological torture is an insidious form of torture that is meant to degrade, humiliate and eventually dehumanize victims. It’s different from physical torture in that it focuses on the mind rather than the body. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not as bad. Although you won’t have physical injuries, the mental damage you’ll receive can have lasting effects.
The Air Force has special program to train pilots to resist psychological torture. Called SERE, it stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. It was formed after American soldiers were imprisoned and brainwashed during the Korean War. The training basically involves mock torturing pilots and soldiers so they know what to expect if they get captured for real.
The United Nations Convention against Torture is an international treaty whose goal is to prevent torture and other forms of cruel punishment worldwide. The Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas says that psychological torture must satisfy four criteria:
4. Lack of direct physical violence
AlJazeera wrote a report that gave details of the CIA’s controversial torture program, which included psychological torture. After 9/11, the agency detained suspects in black sites around the world. Later, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released what is now known as the Torture Report. Psychologists working for the Pentagon and CIA developed many torture techniques, and this let CIA officials avoid restrictions from the Convention Against Torture. These are some of the methods they used.
15. Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation is a type of torture where – you guessed it – prisoners are deprived of sleep. Sleep is something vital to humans and animals. It’s unclear as to how long a person can stay awake, but a person named Randy Gardner has a record for staying awake for 264.4 hours without using stimulants.
Methods to deprive prisoners of sleep include blasting loud music, shining bright strobe lights, and even placing prisoners on a pedestal, and when they fall off they will be electrocuted until they get back on. After a certain period of time without sleep, people start to hallucinate. If the deprivation takes place multiple times over many months, victims can become mentally ill.
Other health effects can include emotional impairment. David Dinges, professor of psychology and director of the Unit for Experimental Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, says:
“When people get sleep-deprived, they don’t show positive emotion in their faces…A sleep-deprived person may say they’re happy, but they still have a neutral face.”
Public shaming is a form of psychological torture with roots in the Middle Ages. Devices used for this type of torture include stocks and the pillory. The word pillory has been documented in the English language since 1274, so this form of torture has a long history.
A pillory consists of a wooden or metal framework put on top of a pole, with holes included for a person’s head and hands. When convicted, a prisoner was sentenced to a certain amount of time in the pillory or stocks. They were in full view of the public, usually in a town square or other trafficked area. This let people humiliate the prisoner, by yelling insults, spitting or even moving on to physical abuse.
An interesting example of how this backfired was in 1703, when Daniel Defoe was put into a pillory for the crime of “seditious libel”. However, the public thought of him as a hero, and he was pelted with flowers instead of mud or excrement.
13. Forced Bareness
Back when Saddam Hussein was alive and in power, one of the most notorious prisons in the world was in Abu Ghraib. Once Hussein was toppled, the area became a U.S. military prison. It turned out that U.S. Army personnel detained Iraqis from 2003 to 2006, and inflicted inhumane torture on the prisoners. Eventually it became a nationwide scandal, and eleven soldiers were convicted of crimes.
One of the types of torture used by the Army in Abu Ghraib was forced nudity. Male prisoners were stripped naked and forced to masturbate in front of everyone, and piled naked into a pyramid in front of a smiling soldier. In Arab culture, homosexual acts are against Islamic law, and it’s humiliating for men to be naked in front of other men.
Bernard Haykel, professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, commented,
“Being put on top of each other and forced to masturbate, being naked in front of each other – it’s all a form of torture…”
In one of the CIA’s black sites, commonly called the Dark Prison, countless abuses were performed on prisoners. One of these was isolation for long periods of time. A former prisoner, Ghairat Baheer, said:
“…If you’re not cooperating, they will put you in a long box, like a coffin, and they will close the door on you. There is no oxygen. It’s completely closed. Stones are put on your top. You feel as if you’re dying.”
Isolation, or solitary confinement, is also used in some U.S. prisons. What are the effects on the mind? In an infamous study from the 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow put rhesus monkeys inside of a solitary chamber called “the pit of despair.” It was shaped like an upside-down pyramid to make climbing out impossible. After a day or two, Harlow wrote that:
“[they were] profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.”
Sound torture is used to break prisoners by using loud music or white noise. Compared to physical torture, so-called “no touch” torture might be considered more humane, but it’s just as effective. Like the pillory, sound torture has a long history, going all the way back to the Aztec empire with the Death Whistle.
Heavy metal music often ends up on the CIA torture playlist. Songs like Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of,” and Deicide’s “F*ck Your God,” are commonly used. But the most popular song used in Guantanamo Bay? “I Love You” by Barney. In SERE school, Rudyard Kipling’s “Boots” is played over a sound system on repeat.
Sergeant Mark Hadsell from the U.S. Psychological Operations Company (Psy Ops) told Newsweek:
“These people haven’t heard heavy metal. They can’t take it. If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down, and your will is broken. That’s when we come in and talk to them.”
10. Pharmacological Manipulation
The use of drugs, especially hallucinogens, has been used for psychological torture. Once again, we find a torture tactic used by the CIA. In a notorious program called Project MKUltra, the CIA experimented with mind control. These experiments centered on using drugs to “weaken the individual to force confessions through mind control.”
MK means that the project was sponsored by the CIA’s Technical Services Staff, while Ultra was used to designate the most secret classification of World War II intelligence.
The most common drug used was LSD, although the agency also experimented with developing truth serums. The CIA’s own website gives a report on the types of drugs used for truth serums, including scopolamine and various barbiturates.
The article concludes that “No such magic brew as the popular notion of truth serum exists. The barbiturates, by disrupting defensive patterns, may sometimes be helpful in interrogation, but even under the best conditions they will elicit an output contaminated by deception, fantasy, garbled speech, etc.”
9. Mock Execution
Mock execution is when a victim is made to feel that their execution, or the execution of a loved one, will take place. It can involve various techniques, like blindfolding the victim and holding a gun to their head, making them say their last words, forcing them to dig their own grave, or shooting blanks at them. Waterboarding is a form of mock execution, as it involves simulated drowning.
Mock execution is said to be a common tactic for ISIL. In 2014 journalist James Foley was subjected to mock execution by ISIL members before his beheading.
A different form of mock execution is called death row phenomenon. Prisoners on death row know that they will eventually die, and this can cause mental trauma. Inmates on death row can become suicidal and have delusions. Prisoners wait years on death row, in tiny cells, which also brings into effect isolation torture.
8. Extreme Temperatures
The use of extreme temperatures is a type of “enhanced interrogation” used by the CIA and FBI. Although it involves physical sensations, it’s considered psychological torture because it’s not directly physical. Freezing temperatures can also be used in sleep deprivation techniques.
A type of this is called cold cell torture, and it involves using air conditioners to subject prisoners to freezing temperatures. Hypothermia is a common side effect, and one website called ColdCellTorture.com says that this form of torture has a mortality rate of 50%.
If the body temperature drops below 90 F, there can be cognitive effects such as amnesia. Below 86 F, organ failure and death can occur. Of course, the opposite of this is using extreme heat, which can result in heat stroke if the body temperature rises above 104 F. Even with the appropriate treatment, heat stroke is usually fatal, so this form of torture walks the line between physical and psychological.
Using fears and phobias against prisoners is intricate but can be effective. Putting arachnophobes in a room full of spiders is a form of this type of torture. This involves intimate knowledge of a victim, so it’s unlikely to be used in a formal, government setting.
Military psychologists in Behavioral Consultation Teams interrogated detainees at Guantanamo for phobias that they held, such as fear of the dark. Back to Abu Ghraib, we saw that the military used dogs to scare the prisoners, threatening to unleash them if the prisoners didn’t cooperate.
Using fear and phobias can be used in conjunction with mock execution, as it involves scaring a prisoner with the fear of death.
6. Sensory Deprivation
Sensory deprivation is an extreme form of psychological torture. It means that you are prevented from seeing, hearing – and in some cases – touching things. Think of it as being trapped in a soundproof chamber.
Like the one Microsoft has. The company’s anechoic chamber set a record for being the quietest place in the world. It reaches a silencing -20.3 decibels. An anechoic chamber means that the walls are covered in specially-shaped wedges that absorb sound and dampen it. Although Microsoft uses it to test equipment for noise levels and training voice recognition, you definitely don’t want to remain inside for long.
In a famous government case, a man named José Padilla was convicted of aiding terrorists in 2007. While imprisoned, he was tortured with sensory deprivation for weeks at a time. For 3.5 years he was kept in a cell with no natural light, clock or calendar. When he left his cell he was shackled and fitted with goggles and headphones. According to Padilla’s legal counsel, he was so “shattered” that he became convinced his lawyers were part of a continuing interrogation program and saw his captors as protectors, which is called Stockholm Syndrome.
Now we come to more specific forms of torture. Waterboarding is when a person is tied to a board and has water poured over their face/nose to simulate drowning. Physical effects include dry drowning, extreme pain, lung damage and brain damage from oxygen deprivation. Although waterboarding is mostly a physical form of torture, the psychological effects can last for years.
The Bush administration increased the use of waterboarding by government agencies after the events of 9/11. The Office of Legal Counsel, Department of Justice authorized the CIA to use waterboarding, although it was called “enhanced interrogation.” When the Torture Memos were leaked in 2004, it showed that the Bush administration tried to change the definition of torture under US law.
Finally, in 2006 the Bush administration explicitly banned torture, including waterboarding, on detainees. The Obama administration made a similar ban. Currently, President-elect Donal Trump wants to bring back waterboarding as a form of torture.
4. Chinese Water Torture
Chinese water torture is a less extreme version of waterboarding, although just as effective at torturing people. It involves tying a person down and slowly dripping water onto their forehead. Although there isn’t an official link to the Chinese, the name stuck.
The name is though to stem from Harry Houdini’s act involving a “Chinese water torture cell” in which he was bound and suspended upside-down in a locked glass container filled with water. He then had to escape in a certain amount of time.
A man named Hippolytus de Marsilius was credited as the first to invent this form of water torture. The Spanish Inquisition used this method, and back then it was simply called Spanish water torture. On the Mythbusters show, a couple of cast members voluntarily tested this method of torture on themselves. Watch the video above to see the results.
KUBARK is a CIA codename found in a manual called KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, dating to July 1963. In involves specialized forms of interrogation, such as using electric shock, threats/fear, sensory deprivation and isolation. A second manual called Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual Wass used in at least seven US training courses in Latin American countries, including Honduras between 1982-1987.
The manuals give explicit instructions. It recommends that suspects be arrested in the early morning by surprise, blindfolding them and stripping them naked. Suspects should be deprived of food and sleep. Interrogation rooms should be windowless, soundproof, dark and without a toilet.
The manual goes on to say that torture techniques can backfire, and the threat of pain can be more effective than using pain itself. These manuals were declassified and released to the public in May 2004, and they can be found online.
Zersetzung, which translates to “decomposition, corrosion, undermining, biodegradation or dissolution” was a psychological technique used by the Stasi, which was the East German secret police. These techniques were used to silence political opponents. Up to 10,000 people are estimated to be victims, and at least half had irreversible damage.
Zersetzung operations were designed to intimidate and destabilize opponents. This was achieved by psychological methods like socially alienating a victim, subjecting them to repeated disappointment, and disrupting their relationships with others. The goal was to destroy a person’s self-confidence and self-esteem.
Every operation needed to be done in a uniform, supervised manner, and the results had to be documented. It wasn’t until the 1970s when it was defined in terms of a “scientific method.” Other methods of zersetzung included espionage, opening letters and listening to phone calls, trespassing on private property in a threatening manner, manipulation vehicles, poisoning food and using “false medications.”
Perhaps the most subtle and insidious of all methods, propaganda can be considered a form of psychological torture. The start of modern “psyops” in war is generally dated to World War I. At the start, countries like Britain and Germany began distributing propaganda. At the time, the British had one of the world’s most reputable news systems and they controlled most of the undersea cable system.
Examples of British propaganda included creating pamphlets to drop over areas using airplanes. Several notable authors were conscripted, like Arthur Conan Doyal and G. K. Chesterton. The pamphlets contained information about various atrocities – both real and fake – allegedly committed by the German army against Belgian civilians. Highly emotional drawings by Louis Raemaekers were included.
The Germans were able to successfully use propaganda to cause the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to declare a jihad, or “holy war” against the West. By World War II, Adolf Hitler took British propaganda techniques and used them to influence the minds of the German people.