TCS Daily

Is Sleep Deprivation Torture?

By Michael Rosen - March 28, 2005 12:00 AM

"Sleep is pain's easiest salve."
-- John Donne, "The Storm"

"There will be sleeping enough in the grave."
-- Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanac

"Who needs sleep? / (well you're never gonna get it) / Who needs sleep? / (tell me what's that for) / Who needs sleep? (be happy with what you're getting / There's a guy who's been awake / since the Second World War)"
-- Barenaked Ladies, "Who Needs Sleep", Stunt (1998, Warner Bros.)

On the spectrum of interrogatory tactics, ranging from harmless and legitimate questioning to immoral and permanently damaging torture, where does the technique of sleep deprivation fall?

This question has bedeviled policy-makers and, amid recent debates over interrogation at Guantanamo Bay and "extraordinary rendition" -- the relocation of terror suspects to states with dubious human rights records -- has begun to transcend a traditional left-right debate. The short- and long-term effects of sleep deprivation, along with its effectiveness in eliciting critical information, therefore bears investigating.

The topic has also been on my mind of late as my wife and I were blessed with a new baby girl a few weeks ago. While my personal experiences with sleep deprivation obviously pale in comparison to systematic, intentional efforts to deny detainees rest; while my reflections are in no way meant to minimize or make light of a very serious issue; and while, conversely, I would never liken my own exhausting labors of love to torture, a mild form of sleep deprivation has become a concrete reality in my life and will remain so for some time. Thus, I feel at least partially justified in ruminating on the topic, especially at those moments of rare clarity that arrive only in the very late hours of sleepless nights.

Zooming out for a moment, interrogators in the War on Terror face a wrenching tension between treating captives humanely and extracting from them information required either to forestall an imminent attack or, more generally, to disrupt the terrorist infrastructure wishing us mortal harm. Thus, several commentators on the right and left have opined that certain coercive techniques are at times necessary but that we must keep off the slippery slope that descends into the same inhumanity in which our enemy indulges.

Sleep deprivation therefore presents a perfect wedge issue. On the one hand, preventing a suspect from sleeping lowers his inhibitions and makes him more likely to reveal damning information in exchange for the opportunity to resume sleeping. On the other hand, continuous, long-lasting denial of sleep can cause persistent psychological and brain damage while at the same time yielding inaccurate or hallucinatory confessions.

Several recent sleep studies have revealed fascinating findings about deprivation. British researchers discovered that lack of sleep can rival consumption of alcohol in debilitating judgment and impairing driving ability. According to the study, drivers who had been awake for 17-19 hours performed less skillfully than those with a blood alcohol content of .05 percent (the common standard for intoxication in most U.S. states is .08 percent).

Anyone getting by on little sleep can confirm the essence of this study: a certain drunkenness and lack of inhibition tends to overcome people suffering from lack of rest. And just like inebriation, sleep deprivation can often induce honest, unvarnished, and sometimes quite damaging statements that well-rested (or sober) people would assiduously avoid. Thus, at least at some level, keeping terror suspects awake and disoriented can be an effective way of coaxing hidden information from them.

Another aspect of sleep-deprivation compounds this tongue-loosening effect. According to some, captives denied sleep yearn for it so keenly that they will divulge just about anything in order to be permitted some winks. Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in a widely-quoted passage of his book White Nights, recalled his captivity as a sleepless inmate in a KGB prison: "In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep... Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it."

However, other studies have highlighted the failure of sleep-deprived subjects to perform basic tasks at the same level as the well-rested, mainly because different portions of the brain are turned on and off. For instance, the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex normally processes language-related tasks. But an experiment by scientists at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) reported in the journal Nature revealed that the temporal lobe was not activated in individuals denied sleep. This, too, meshes with real-world experience: the sleepless, like the drunk, tend to slur their speech.

Instead, the UCSD study showed, higher-than-normal activity in the parietal lobe of sleep-deprived subjects appeared to compensate for the shut-down of the temporal lobe. However, the parietal is an inadequate substitute for the temporal lobe with respect to language tasks, and the sleepless subjects performed worse than their rested counterparts on various tasks. Similar results obtained in mathematical tests, although, curiously, some sleep-deprived subjects bested their well-slept rivals in short-term memory tasks (possibly because the parietal lobe is generally associated with short-term memory).

Thus, the more sleep-deprived a suspect becomes, the less likely he is to communicate coherently or to perform other brain functions. Begin also wrote that too much sleep denial can yield inaccurate information. He "came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty; he did not promise them food to sate themselves. He promised them -- if they signed -- uninterrupted sleep! And, having signed, there was nothing in the world that could move them to risk again such nights and such days."

Yet the demerits of intensive sleep-deprivation lie not only in the diminishing intelligence returns it produces but also in the serious long-term harm it can inflict on the subject. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institute of Health, has found that hallucinations can result from severe sleep-deprivation. Others have claimed that extended lack of sleep leads to psychosis.

Thus, extreme sleep-deprivation probably qualifies as something worse than a mere coercive method that leaves no lasting marks on detainees. In fact, some groups, such as Amnesty International, go so far as to deem what they call "prolonged sleep-deprivation" a violation of the Convention Against Torture. Strictly speaking, the practice probably falls under the rubric not of torture but of "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment" under the Convention's Article 16.

In any event, interrogators walk a very fine line when they deploy sleep-deprivation tactics as interrogatory measures. Additional research -- preferably in a laboratory with willing participants, not in a dank cell with detainees -- will help clarify how to resolve this tension. In the end, knowing that we civilians need not make these difficult decisions will allow some to sleep easier -- while the rest of us will lie awake.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is an attorney in San Diego. He dedicates this article, which he researched and wrote over several late nights, to Danya.



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