BBC torture experiment replicates Guantánamo and secret prisons: how to lose your mind in 48 hours


On Tuesday, the BBC screened a Horizon programme, Total Isolation, which sought to recreate a controversial sensory deprivation experiment that was conducted 40 years ago. In a series of isolation cells, constructed in a former nuclear bunker in Hertfordshire, a group of six volunteers –- three left alone in dark, sound-proofed rooms, the other three in goggles and foam cuffs, with white noise piped into their ears –- were monitored to see what effect 48 hours of sensory deprivation would have on their mental and physical health.

Images from the BBC programme

Images from the BBC programme.

Professor Ian Robbins, head of trauma psychology at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, who has treated some of the British Guantánamo detainees and other victims of torture who come to the UK from around the world, oversaw the experiments, and stated, “It is important to look at the impact of sensory deprivation because of the number of places around the world where it is used as a weapon or to aid interrogation. We know that stimulating the brain helps increase connections in the brain that speeds up information processing, but we wanted to find out if the reverse occurs.”

Professor Robbins and his team were aware that the risks involved in the experiment were considerable. When it was carried out in the 1950s, by Canadian psychologist Professor Donald Hebb, it had to be abandoned after 48 hours, because the volunteers were unable to endure the conditions for a longer period of time. One subject described the sensory deprivation as being “as bad as anything Hitler had ever done to any of his victims,” and afterwards Professor Hebb reported that the “very identity” of his subjects had begun to disintegrate within two days.

One of the volunteers for the Panorama programme was comedian Adam Bloom, who explained, “I’m a very busy person, with a mind that is always racing with thoughts and ideas. My job involves coming up with new jokes all the time and I work by constantly observing my surroundings for anything that I could use on stage. I reckoned 48 hours wasn’t that long and I was sure I could cope.”

What happened instead came as a shock to the comedian. “I spent the first half an hour in the bunker talking, singing and making jokes, but that quickly got boring. So, I took to sitting on my bed, staring in front of me,” he told the Daily Mail. “My mind filled up with thoughts of my life outside, and I started to worry about my fiancée and family. What if something happened to them while I’m in here? Would anyone let me know? It didn’t take me long to feel more anxious that I usually would.”

Within a few hours, Bloom fell asleep, but when he woke up, he realized that the familiar anchors of reality had deserted him. “In the absence of a watch or sunlight, I’d totally lost track of time,” he said. “I dozed on and off for what I thought was a few hours, but when I woke up I had no idea whether it was day or night. It was really unnerving. Even eating the meals I was handed didn’t help me reset my body clock. I felt horrendously bored, and completely out of touch with everything.”

Just 18 hours after entering the bunker, Bloom began experiencing paranoia. “At one point, I started singing and then I burst into tears,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time I cried, and I felt my emotions were beginning to run out of control. Then, I found myself suspecting the whole experiment was a trick. How did I know who these people really were? What if they’d gone home and I was trapped down there forever? I knew I was being ridiculous, because setting up the experiment had taken months and involved lengthy meetings and e-mails, but I couldn’t shake the sense of paranoia.”

After 24 hours, Bloom felt that his brainpower was flagging. “Without light,” he explained, “it was almost impossible to stimulate myself and my brain felt as though it was going to sleep.” By 30 hours, he responded by pacing his room endlessly in a bid to keep himself occupied, prompting Professor Robbins to comment, “This behaviour is often seen in animals, as well as people, when they are kept in confinement. It’s a way of providing input into your life physically.”

Finally, after 40 hours, Bloom began to hallucinate. He said that he saw a pile of 500 oyster shells, and described them in detail. “I could see the pearly sheen on the oyster shells as clear as day,” he explained, adding, “Then I felt as though the room was taking off from underneath me. For the first time, I realized that the lack of stimulation was driving me close to insanity. I felt nothing but numbness, as though I was losing the will to live. I considered pulling out, but I told myself that at least I could comfort myself with the thought that my ordeal was soon going to be over. Some prisoners have had to endure these conditions for months, or even years.”

Artist Barney Ashton, one of the volunteers

Artist Barney Ashton, one of the six volunteers. Two other volunteers experienced hallucinations, according to the BBC. Mickey, a postman, was frightened when he saw mosquitoes and fighter planes buzzing around his head, and Claire, a psychology student, didn’t mind the little cars, snakes and zebras, but was scared when she suddenly felt that somebody else was in the room.

Unlike most reality shows, “Total Isolation” at least had a valid point to make, and it is, I think, tremendously important that the terrible effects of sensory deprivation can be demonstrated, on mainstream TV, in the space of just 48 hours. When Bloom undertook psychological tests, after the experiment ended, the results showed that his ability to process information had been impaired, that his memory had been reduced, and, perhaps most significantly, given the programme makers’ stated intent to compare their experiment with the suffering endured by those facing “enhanced interrogation,” his suggestibility had increased.

I hope that the show was widely seen, and that it helps people to overcome the widespread delusion that sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, and the prolonged use of noise and darkness (or permanent light) are somehow inconvenient rather than examples of torture. By a curious coincidence, the programme screened on the same day that Jose Padilla, an American citizen who was once accused of plotting to detonate a “dirty bomb” in a US city, was sentenced instead for supporting terrorist activities abroad. For the three and a half years that the “bomb plot” allegations persisted –- before they were dropped, either because they were groundless or because exposing them would have revealed rather too much about the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the intelligence services –- Padilla had been held as an “enemy combatant” in a US military brig, where he had been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement and sensory deprivation.

Last September, in an article for the Christian Science Monitor, Warren Richey described in detail how Padilla was cut off from all external stimuli: “Padilla’s cell measured nine feet by seven feet. The windows were covered over. There was a toilet and sink. The steel bunk was missing its mattress. He had no pillow. No sheet. No clock. No calendar. No radio. No television. No telephone calls. No visitors. Even Padilla’s lawyer was prevented from seeing him for nearly two years. For significant periods of time the Muslim convert was denied any reading material, including the Koran. The mirror on the wall was confiscated. Meals were slid through a slot in the door. The light in his cell was always on.”

Richey added, “Those who haven’t experienced solitary confinement can imagine that life locked in a small space would be inconvenient and boring. But according to a broad range of experts who have studied the issue, isolation can be psychologically devastating. Extreme isolation, in concert with other coercive techniques, can literally drive a person insane, [which] makes it a potential instrument of torture.” When approved by [former US defense secretary] Donald Rumsfeld for use at Guantánamo, Defense Department lawyers warned that isolation was “not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days.” This echoed the CIA’s findings, in a declassified 1963 handbook, when the agency warned of the “profound moral objection” of applying “duress past the point of irreversible psychological damage.”

According to Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and “an expert on the debilitating effects of solitary confinement,” who conducted a detailed examination of Padilla for his lawyers, it was “clear from examining Mr. Padilla that that limit was surpassed.” After studying the daily activity logs relating to his incarceration, particularly during the period from November 2002 to April 2003, which Padilla himself described as the “terrible time,” Grassian discovered that it was “not unusual for Mr. Padilla to go four, five, or six days without even brief [visual checks] by the brig staff, who were, in any event, under instruction not to converse with him.” Richey added, “Other than the brief checks by brig guards, Padilla went through stretches of 34 days, 17 days and 15 days without any human contact,” and Grassian concluded that “when he did have such contact, it was inevitably with an interrogator.”

Given that two days of isolation induced paranoia, hallucinations and increased susceptibility in volunteers who knew that they were free to leave, it was not surprising, in Padilla’s case, that the results were rather more harrowing. As Dr. Angela Hegarty, a forensic scientist who spent 22 hours with him last year, explained to Democracy Now, “What happened at the brig was essentially the destruction of a human being’s mind.”

Because of his recent conviction, Padilla is the most topical example of a real-life prisoner whose experiences relate to the themes touched upon by the BBC last week, but he is not the only one. At Guantánamo, at the US prisons in Afghanistan where prisoners were “processed” for Guantánamo, and at secret, CIA-run prisons in Afghanistan and other countries, such techniques were widespread, and, as with Padilla, were applied well beyond a 48-hour time limit. Many of these cases are discussed in depth in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, but another example, which I came across recently, also springs to mind. In a recent interview, Damien Corsetti, a former interrogator at Bagram, one of the US prisons in Afghanistan, where several prisoners were murdered by US forces, explained the failures of an institutional policy of sleep deprivation, which also involved the allied evils of prolonged solitary confinement and sensory deprivation.

“We had those people going without sleep for a whole week,” Corsetti said. “After two or three days with no sleep, you believe anything. In fact, it was a problem. The interpreters couldn’t understand what they were saying. The prisoners were having hallucinations. Because, of course, this is not like if you or me go three days without sleep when we’re partying. I’ve gone five days without sleep when I’ve been partying. But this is different. You’re in a cell where they let you sleep only a quarter of an hour every now and then. With no contact with the outside world. Without seeing sunlight. Like that, a day seems like a week. Your mental capacity is destroyed.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

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  1. Psychology » Blog Archive » BBC torture experiment replicates Guantánamo and secret prisons: how to lose your mind in 48 hours says...

    […] Andy Worthington wrote an interesting post today on BBC torture experiment replicates Guantánamo and secret prisons: how to lose your mind in 48 hoursHere’s a quick excerptBBC torture experiment replicates Guantánamo and secret prisons: how to lose your mind in 48 hours January 27th, 2008 On Tuesday, the BBC screened a Horizon programme, Total Isolation, which sought to recreate a controversial sensory deprivation experiment that was conducted 40 years ago. In a series of isolation cells, constructed in a former nuclear bunker in Hertfordshire, a group of six volunteers – three left alone in dark, sound-proofed rooms, the other three in goggles and foam cuffs, […]

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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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