As part of our project’s research on brainwashing and its association with interrogation, Marcia Holmes interviewed Tim Shallice, professor emeritus and past director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College, London. This post shares clips from their conversation filmed on 12 April 2016.
In 1971, Tim Shallice became a vocal critic of ‘interrogation in depth’, the controversial methods used by British government agents in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Shallice, then a lecturer in psychology at University College, London, was sceptical of claims that such techniques would have no lasting effects on prisoners’ health, and outraged by the Ministry of Defense’s rationale that they were necessary for the safety of prisoners and interrogators. He sought, with the help of friends in the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, to learn more about the potential psychological effects of ‘the Five Techniques’ used in depth interrogation. In a 1972 paper in the journal Cognition, Shallice argued that these methods resulted in extreme sensory deprivation and thus were likely to cause serious psychological damage. Other publications, such as Shallice and Wall’s op-ed in New Scientist magazine, more pointedly described the techniques as a form of mental torture. Such arguments contributed to the UK government’s official ban on interrogation in depth, and the closing down of publicly funded research on sensory deprivation in Canada in the mid-1970s.
Shallice’s paper has recently been rediscovered as the international community grapples with the use of enhanced interrogation techniques during the so-called ‘War on Terror’. Revisiting the context of Shallice’s critique reminds us that the brainwashing scare of the 1950s not only increased public awareness that torture could take psychological form – brainwashing may have also inspired agents of Western governments to look to the psy sciences for new, more coercive methods of interrogation.
‘Interrogation in depth’
In August 1971, the UK government instituted a policy of internment without trial in Northern Ireland to aid the British Army in quelling the escalating violence of The Troubles. Of the hundreds of men detained in the first month of the policy, twelve (eventually fourteen) were selected by the Royal Ulster Constabulary for ‘interrogation in depth.’ This involved what has become known as ‘the Five Techniques’: wall standing, hooding, white noise, sleep deprivation, and a diet of only bread and water. Technically, the RUC also used a sixth technique, making a prisoner wear a loose-fitting boiler suit. The looseness of the suit, in conjunction with forcing a prisoner to maintain a fixed body position in ‘wall standing’, to wear a hood, and to listen to white noise at a loud volume (85 dB) for hours on end, meant that the prisoner experienced unvarying sensory information from his environment – an effect known as ‘perceptual deprivation’. Perceptual deprivation, in concert with hunger, lack of sleep and the stress of captivity, will cause severe disorientation and distress, making prisoners more pliable for interrogation.
Irish and British newspapers were already reporting on the violent treatment of prisoners under internment when, in October 1971, testimonies from eleven of the specially selected men were smuggled out of a holding centre in Ballykinler and printed in The Sunday Times. That paper’s Insight Team described how the techniques were implemented:
“During the period of their interrogation, they were continuously hooded, barefoot, dressed only in an over-large boiler suit, and spread-eagled against a wall – leaning on their fingertips like the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle. The only sound that filled the room was a high-pitched throb, which the detainees usually liken to an air compressor.” (The Sunday Times Insight Team, p. 291)
The Insight Team’s reports suggested that the purpose of this treatment was to drive a prisoner to mental breakdown, at least temporarily, for the sake of interrogation.
The Sunday Times’ story added to a growing furore over the British Army’s role in The Troubles. The British Home Secretary Reginald Maudling instructed Sir Edmund Compton to consider the merit of these emerging claims. Compton was already leading a government inquiry into allegations of physical brutality at internment centres, and his committee’s study of the depth interrogation methods used by the Royal Ulster Constabulary proved frustratingly superficial. The Compton Report, published in November 1971, concluded that the Ulster techniques constituted ‘ill-treatment’ but not physical brutality – a legalistic distinction that appeared to many as a whitewash. A second inquiry was immediately called, led by Lord Parker, to consider whether the Ulster techniques, when used according to existing doctrine, would cause prisoners long-term mental harm.
Significantly the Parker Committee learned that the Royal Ulster Constabulary had been trained in the Five Techniques by British officers from the Combined Services Intelligence Centre (CSIC; in the Parker Report referred to as the ‘English Intelligence Centre’). The Five Techniques had been developed by British military intelligence officers in the period after World War II as part of their counterinsurgency tactics, and all five had been used in Aden (Yemen) prior to Northern Ireland (Parker Report). CSIC officials argued before the Parker Committee that their techniques were created to instil prisoners with a sense of being in a hostile yet disciplined environment, which was a standard approach to intelligence interrogation. The elements of wall standing, hooding, and white noise had been developed specifically for the safety and security of prisoners and interrogators, the committee was told, as they prevented prisoners from communicating with each other or taking action that would endanger others (Newbery 2009).
However, as Lord Gardiner would note in his minority report for the Parker Committee, the Five Techniques were manifestly similar to those employed by the KGB. For critics such as Tim Shallice, the similarity between the Five Techniques and the KGB’s methods of interrogation – which included keeping prisoners in a ‘featureless cell’ to deprive them of mental stimulation – was the key to understanding how the Five Techniques would disorient and traumatize prisoners. In contrast to the CSIC officials Shallice, along with the physiologist Patrick Wall, psychiatrist Henry Dicks, and psychoanalysts Arthur Hyatt Williams and Anthony Storr, advised the Parker Committee that the Ulster methods were excessive, immoral and should be illegal (Ristow and Shallice 1976).
In the following excerpt from our interview, Tim Shallice explains how he first learned about the use of internment and depth interrogation in Northern Ireland, and how he came to compare the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s methods to sensory deprivation research. Shallice’s involvement was encouraged by friends belonging to the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, an organisation that Shallice would later join.
The science of psychological torture
The relationship between sensory deprivation (SD) research and brainwashing was something of an open secret – it had even been the subject of a 1963 British film, The Mind Benders, starring Dirk Bogarde. Yet perhaps less well known at the time was the field’s precise origins in a 1951 agreement between the Canadian Defence Research Board, the British Defence Research Policy Committee, and the CIA to fund neuropsychological research on the effects of ‘sensory isolation’ – an agreement motivated by the desire to learn why KGB methods were effective in producing false confessions. Shallice himself learned of this agreement from a friend in the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, Andy Solandt. Andy was the son of Omond Solandt, the chair of the Defence Research Board in Canada.
In its early form, the field of SD involved elaborate experiments in which subjects would be kept in a chamber for hours, sometimes days, with minimal visual, audio and sensual stimulation. Though John Marks would reveal in his 1979 expose, In Search of the Manchurian Candidate, that some CIA-funded sensory deprivation research was secret and egregiously unethical, in actual fact much sensory deprivation research in the 1950s and 60s was public, and followed well-accepted protocols for experimenting on human subjects. At first undertaken by the neuropsychologist Donald Hebb, and later by several other respected scientists in the US, Canada and Britain, SD experiments typically involved volunteer subjects who were allowed to quit the experiment whenever they wished. Some subjects stopped early in a panic and others managed to hold on and even enjoy the hallucinatory experience. Many subjects described feeling a dissociation between mind and body that, eventually causing them discomfort, led them to withdraw from the experiment.
Shallice’s own research was unrelated to the scientific field of sensory deprivation. As a cognitive neuropsychologist at University College, London, Shallice worked alongside clinical neuroscientists: they treated patients who suffered from lesions or other physical damage to the brain, and Shallice studied how these physiological phenomena related to cognitive functioning. (To learn more about Tim Shallice’s career as a scientist, you can view his 2014 interview for the British Neuropsychological Society on YouTube). Shallice’s knowledge of cognitive science and neuropsychology nevertheless proved to be excellent preparation for delving into the scientific literature on SD. Intrigued by what happens to volunteer subjects in these experiments – the mounting disorientation that causes subjects to quit – Shallice posited that perceptual deprivation causes a ‘positive feedback loop’ of anxiety in the mind of the subject that leads to hallucinations and disorientated thinking. He hypothesized that the effect would be even more distressing for prisoners who cannot withdraw from the experience at will and who, additionally, are experiencing hunger, lack of sleep, and the stress of not knowing when their internment will end. Influenced by William Sargant’s theory of brainwashing, Shallice suggested that the ultimate effect of the Five Techniques would be long-term trauma akin to shell shock.
In addition to presenting his case to the Parker committee, Shallice wrote a scientific paper laying out his hypothesis that the Ulster Techniques were an extreme form of perceptual deprivation. His article appeared in the first volume of Cognition, a journal that intended to share cutting edge research in cognitive science and also – befitting the politics of the Vietnam Era – essays that promoted the social responsibilities of scientists. Thus, Shallice’s paper went beyond hypothesising the cognitive effects of psychological torture. It declared that because SD was so conceptually similar to the methods of coercive interrogation used by military and intelligence forces, and because SD did not seem likely to offer any fundamental scientific insights that would be of use to medicine or the broader science of psychology, SD researchers should no longer receive public funds. Shallice even suggested a direct causal link between SD science and interrogation in depth, writing “The Ulster techniques appear to have been developed utilizing a knowledge of the sensory deprivation literature.”
Arguments such as these – offered amidst the public controversy over interrogation in Northern Ireland – led the British Prime Minister Edward Heath to ban the use of the Five Techniques by the military. The public furore, as Michal Raz explains, also led to the shuttering of the remaining active SD research programme, led by John Zubek in Manitoba, Canada. Zubek was a conscientious researcher with an intellectual interest in SD apparently unrelated to interrogation, however ‘Zubek found himself the centre of controversy over the misuse of psychological research to further interrogation, and ultimately, as a form of torture.’ (Raz 2013, p. 392).
Below, Shallice describes the main argument of his 1972 Cognition paper and its implications for SD research.
The human cost of interrogation in depth
In the third excerpt below, Shallice describes meeting two of the 14 men who had been subjected to the Ulster techniques, and interviewing them about the experience. Shallice was given the opportunity to travel to Northern Ireland and meet these men as part of filming a programme for BBC, an episode of ‘Open Door’ that featured the work of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS). The forty-five-minute episode, which was written and produced by the BSSRS, aired on 13 October 1974. Shallice remarks on the difference between the two men, with one man apparently using his traumatic experience as fuel for his political activism, and the other, Pat Shivers, showing greater signs of trauma.
A video of the BSSRS’s Open Door episode is available in the British Film Institute’s archive in London. In the fifteen minutes of the episode dedicated to interrogation in depth, only Shivers is featured. Shivers recounts how at one point in his imprisonment, while forced to stand with legs apart, arms outstretched against a wall, he passed out and fell to the ground. Forcibly revived, he hallucinated that he had died, and saw his young son – who had died years before – beckoning to him. Shallice was deeply moved by this story, and recounted it in our conversation as an example of the ‘disorders of belief’ that resulted from the ever-increasing stress and disorientation caused by the Ulster techniques.
Historians do not know why the fourteen men were chosen for interrogation in depth, as official records are vague on why each man was considered to have knowledge of the Provisional IRA that could not be obtained by normal police interrogation methods. Indeed, some of the men had never been members of the Provisional IRA and, records show, did not provide interrogators with intelligence (Newbery 2009). In our conversation, Shallice noted that his hypothesis about the link between sensory deprivation research and British interrogation also intimates why only fourteen men were chosen for special treatment: the use of the Five Techniques in The Troubles may have been an experiment. In 1974, The Guineapigs, a book by Irish journalist John McGuffin repeated and amplified Shallice’s interpretation, suggesting that the men were “unwilling and unwitting subjects upon whom Army psychiatrists, psychologists and ‘counter-terrorist strategists’ could experiment in that particular field known as ‘SD’ – Sensory Deprivation.” McGuffin’s claim has never been refuted or proven correct, perhaps owing to continued secrecy behind the decision to implement interrogation in depth. New information may yet surface, however, in the course of a court case now being brought against the British government by the victims of the Ulster techniques.
Filming by Marianna Ladas, with editing by Marcia Holmes. Charlie Williams provided additional research assistance.
Ian Cobain, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture (Portobello 2012)
John McGuffin, The Guineapigs (Penguin Books 1974)
Samantha Newbery, “Intelligence and Controversial British Interrogation Techniques: the Northern Ireland Case, 1971-2” Irish Studies in International Affairs 20 (2009) 103-119
Shane O’Mara, Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation (Harvard University Press 2015)
Michal Raz, “Alone again: John Zubek and the troubled history of sensory deprivation research’ Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 49, no. 4 (Fall 2013): 379-395
William Ristow and Tim Shallice, ‘Taking the Hood off British Torture’ New Scientist 72, No 1012 (5 August 1976): 272
Tim Shallice, ‘The Ulster depth interrogation techniques and their relation to sensory deprivation research’ Cognition 1, No. 4 (1972): 385-405
Tim Shallice and Patrick Wall, ‘Comment: Interrogation questioned’ New Scientist 52, No. 773 (9 December 1971): 67
Dominic Streatfeild, Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control (Hodder and Stoughton 2006)
The Sunday Times Insight Team, Ulster (Penguin Books 1972)