A protester holds up his chained arms during a protest against the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, in Parliament Square in London, Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014.

A protester holds up his chained arms during a protest against the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, in Parliament Square in London, Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014. KRISTY WIGGLESWORTH / AP

This Is Your Brain on Torture

Two CIA interrogators sought to create a state of ‘learned helplessness‘ in their interrogation subjects. Here’s what that means. By Patrick Tucker

The Senate Intelligence Committee unveiled a near 600-page document detailing aspects of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. Reporters the world over focused on the report’s findings that the CIA deliberately and repeatedly lied about the enhanced interrogation techniques that they were using in terms of those technique’s severity and efficacy. But the document also confirms in striking detail what others had reported previously. The CIA, with the help of two Air Force psychologists who are named in the report with the pseudonyms “Grayson Swigert” and “Hammond Dunbar,” sought to create a state of “learned helplessness” in prisoners, a state of complete psychological compliance, rendering the subject devoid of any sense of agency or will. 

The idea of learned helplessness dates back to a 1967 paper by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman. In various writings, Seligman describes his learned helplessness hypothesis this way: “It argues that when events are uncontrollable, the organism learns that its behavior and outcomes are independent and that this learning produces the motivational, cognitive and emotional effects of uncontrollability.” In other words, learned helplessness is a state where in the subject gives up any idea of escaping.

Seligman’s original tests are remarkable for their callousness. Various dogs were exposed to a series of shocks over the course of a week. One group of dogs came to understand that they could move to a different area to escape the shocks. Another group of dogs was conditioned to understand that there was no behavior that the dog could undertake to avoid the treatment. After days of confusing stimuli and persistent jolts of electricity, the dogs in the second group came to accept their fate as permanent. They would respond to pain by lying down and whimpering “helplessly” rather than attempt an escape.

Although the learned helplessness hypothesis has been around for more than 40 years, only recently have scientists begun to understand how the condition actually appears.

In May of this year, researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring, New York, set out to see if they could actually show the neurological affects of learned helplessness in mice, focusing specifically on the animals’ medial pre-frontal cortex, or mPFC. In mammals, the mPFC is the part of the brain that controls associations between context, location and events. It plays a role—with the hippocampus—in memory formation and—with the amygdala —in emotional response.

So what does learned helplessness look like? In the May 28 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers describe the physical changes that they observed, which included “dendritic remodeling, spine loss and altered synaptic transmission” in regions of the mPFC.   

The mPFC neurons enter into a state of hyper-activity. They become large and the synapses become distended. That may sound like something of a pleasant state but what it means is that the neurons reabsorb serotonin and norepinephrine at a much higher rate, keeping the levels of these neurotransmitters low in the brain. The altered synapses and cells, the continual and perpetual reabsorption of key neurotransmitters change the person completely, affecting a state of depression.

In a sense, a brain that has reached the point of learned helplessness is a brain in a near permanent state of torture. The subject loses any sense of a future outside of suffering.  If you believe the adage from existential psychologist Rollo May that depression is “the inability to construct a future,” then depressive is more than an accurate description.

That Swigert and Dunbar played a role in the CIA’s secret interrogation program is not new, nor is the fact that they sought to create a state of learned helplessness. But the account of the program provided by witnesses to Swigert and Dunbar’s methods, the way that CIA rationalized a program of systematic, psychological deconstruction is chilling. Waterboarding could be safely applied to some subjects to little effect, but could also be applied to others when coupled with psychological torture to greater effect, at greater risk. The report quotes a communication from the chief of base at the so-called GREEN detention site:

“While the techniques described in Headquarters [sic] meetings and below are administered to student volunteers in the U.S. in a harmless way, with no measurable impact on the psyche of the volunteer, we do not believe we can assure the same here for a man forced through these processes and who will be made to believe this is the future course of the remainder of his life,” emphasis added.

Swigert and Dunbar were affiliated with the Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program, the goal of which is to equip U.S. service members with the means to cope with torture and resist harsh interrogation as well as survive in the wild.

But on al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah and other detainees, Swigert and Dunbar applied a corrupted version of interrogation resistance to achieve the opposite outcome. The Air Force does not conduct waterboard training as part of any program. “They… responded that they were aware that the Navy—which used the waterboard technique in training—had not reported any significant long-term consequences on individuals from its use. Unlike the CIA's subsequent use of the waterboard, however, the Navy's use of the technique was a single training exercise and did not extend to multiple sessions,” the Senate report states. The multiple sessions bit is key in creation of learned helplessness.

One of the most disturbing portions of the Senate report describes the effectiveness of this treatment on Zubaydah. At one point after weeks of now well-documented physical and psychological torture, Zubaydah’s handlers saw that he had changed, had become “compliant.”

“When the interrogator 'raised his eyebrow,' without instructions, Abu Zubaydah 'slowly walked on his own to the water table and sat down,'" the report said. Then, "when the interrogator snapped his fingers twice, Abu Zubaydah would lie flat on the waterboard."

Learned helplessness in the walking flesh.

Swigert and Dunbar likely won’t face prosecution for their role in the program. In 2007, the CIA entered into an indemnification agreement with them to shield them from legal liability.

Not only will they never face any jury, they were well compensated for their work.

“In 2006, the value of the CIA's base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract's termination in 2009.”

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