When discussing sleep deprivation, the memos released last Thursday cite the work of Dr. James Horne in support of the claim that sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours is not torture. (See here, pp. 35-40.) I wrote to Dr. Horne and asked him whether he would like to respond to this use of his work. (He had given a statement to Zachary Roth at TPMMuckraker, but I thought he might like the opportunity to respond at greater length.) What follows is his response.
Re: Bradbury (US Dept of Justice) memo of May 10th 2005, to the Central Intelligence Agency, concerning ‘coercive techniques’
Comment by Professor Jim Horne on the citation of selected extracts of his book ‘Why We Sleep’, in apparently justifying sleep deprivation as a ‘safe coercive technique’
My book ‘Why We Sleep’ was written without any thought of ‘coercive techniques’ in mind. Nevertheless I made it very clear that pure sleep deprivation in otherwise happy healthy volunteers, as in laboratory settings without additional stresses, is not very eventful for the body, while it is much more so for our brain and behaviour. Whereas sleep helps people withstand stress, sleep loss makes us more vulnerable to other stresses, especially as the inherent sleepiness and other adverse effects on the brain confuse the mind’s ability to figure out how to deal with and avoid these stresses. Thus I emphasise that my book’s conclusions were based on ‘pure sleep deprivation’ without additional stresses. Such findings were derived from otherwise undemanding and benign laboratory studies that do not typify the real world, whereas people are usually sleep deprived because of other stresses such as long and arduous working hours, family crises, etc. Healthy people who have volunteered for sleep deprivation experiments are usually well cosseted by their experimenters, perhaps too much so, and might have been inadvertently protected from the full effects of sleep loss. Apart from the sleep deprivation, volunteers typically lead a tranquil existence, are fed very well and, except for having periodically to undergo various harmless tests, have plenty of time for relaxation, reading and watching TV. There have been many of these experiments with human volunteers, with the longest lasting 8-11 days. Volunteers can pull out any time and there is full medical cover. The purpose of these studies has been to explore what sleep does for the body and brain, by removing sleep and see what happens. Under these circumstances, the ‘body’ copes well, whereas the brain and behaviour are obviously affected – not only by sleepiness but by more subtle changes whereby individuals can no longer think for themselves and become more like automatons.
With additional stresses as in ‘coercive techniques’, the situation for the sleep deprived victim becomes deplorable, as the mind and brain under these circumstances trigger the body’s defences to create a physiological ‘alarm reaction’ whereby, for example, various stress coping hormones are mobilised and prepare the body for possible trauma, even blood loss. I emphasise that this alarm reaction is not present under ‘pure sleep loss’ as I have just described. Prolonged stress with sleep deprivation will lead to a physiological exhaustion of the body’s defence mechanisms, physical collapse, and with the potential for various ensuing illnesses. We don’t know at what point this latter phase would be reached with ‘coercive techniques’, but to claim that 180 hours is safe in these respects, is nonsense. Moreover, whereas physical pain may not be particularly apparent even at this stage, the mental pain would be all too evident, and arguably worse than physical pain.
Even if one was to be pragmatic and claim that this form of sleep deprivation produced ‘desired results’, I would doubt whether the state of mind would be able to produce credible information, unaffected by delusion, fantasy or suggestibility.
Whilst Bradbury’s memo acknowledges (p36) that, “We note that there are important differences between interrogation technique used by the CIA and the controlled experiments documented in the literature” – i.e. what I wrote might not be wholly applicable to ‘coercive techniques’, this key point was understated. I had no knowledge of this memo or its contents until a few days ago, and am both saddened and appalled that my book has been used in this way.
Sleep Research Centre, Loughborough University, UK
20th April 2009