Isolation, Sensory Deprivation, and Sensory Overload: History, Research, and Interrogation Policy from
the 1950s to the Present Day
Over the past several years, a controversy has arisen over the use of medical and psychological personnel for the purposes of interrogating prisoners in the United States “war on terror.” Recent revelations, including the release of the CIA Inspector General’s 2004 Report on the CIA’s interrogation program, led the human rights organization Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to conclude that doctors, psychologists and other health professionals designed, implemented and helped supervise “a worldwide torture program” following 9/11. Much of the criticism of this program, and its putative legality or illegality, has focused on dramatically abusive forms of coercive interrogation, such as waterboarding. Less well known, but perhaps just as injurious to its victims, are practices such as long-term isolation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload or over-stimulation, and sleep deprivation. These techniques, along with use of fear, constitute psychological torture. They are exaggerated forms of common psychological phenomena, exercised precisely to break down the psychological defenses of an individual.
This article presents a brief historical summary of the research into forms of coercive persuasion, primarily sensory deprivation, conducted 35-50 years ago, in which psychologists, psychoanalysts, and psychiatrists worked for the CIA and the Pentagon to understand and implement these techniques. As a result of this research, sensory deprivation, prolonged isolation, and later, sensory overload became an integral part of the U.S. coercive interrogation paradigm. The primary document summarizing and implementing this material, constructing a comprehensive interrogation program, was the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual, declassified in 1997 (KUBARK was an alternate in-house name for CIA.)
This article is presented in the context of a controversy within American Psychological Association (APA), over psychologist participation in interrogations.4 The struggle within APA over this issue has been fought in a number of resolutions, as well as the constitution of the organization’s ethics code. In the background of the controversies, there exists the presence of a decades-long history of psychologist participation in research on these methods on psychological torture.