Sleep Deprivation IS Torture

October 15, 2006 at 3:51 am | Posted in Torture | 22 Comments

Over on Our Thoughts, a Canadian blog, one of their writers asks about legalizing torture. The commenters debated whether sleep deprivation is indeed torture. I offer evidence that it is indeed torture.
A blogger at Noli Irritare Leones links to the following citations that describe the effects of sleep deprivation on human beings:

Sleep Deprivation at

Night 5. On top of the effects previously mentioned, delusions (false beliefs) may be experienced. Intellectual and problem-solving abilities are largely unimpaired.

Night 6. Symptoms of depersonalization occur and a clear sense of identity is lost. This is called sleep deprivation psychosis.
Adapted from Huber-Weidman, 1976.

an article in Psychiatric Times shows the effects of sleep deprivation, which include mood swings, hallucinations and paranoia. Here is one of the examples they provide:

In many respects Gardner’s symptoms were similar to those experienced by a New York disk jockey, Peter Tripp, who endured a 200-hour sleepless marathon to raise money for the March of Dimes. During the course of his ordeal his thoughts became increasingly distorted and there were marked periods of irrationality. By the end of four days he could not successfully execute simple tests requiring focused attention. In addition, he began to have hallucinations and distorted visual perceptions. At one point Tripp became quite upset when he thought that the spots on a table were insects. He thought that there were spiders crawling around the booth and even once complained that they had spun cobwebs on his shoes.

He showed the same increasing moodiness and paranoia that Gardner did. On his last day, a neurologist was called to examine Tripp before sending him home. When Tripp looked up at this doctor in his dark, old-fashioned suit, he had the delusion that the doctor was really an undertaker who was about to bury him alive. Overtaken with fear, he let loose a scream and bolted for the door. Half-dressed, Tripp ran down the hall with doctors and psychologists in pursuit. He could no longer distinguish the difference between reality and nightmare.

This same pattern of mental deterioration that mimicks psychotic symptoms appears in several more systematic studies of sleep deprivation and extreme sleep debt. Thus, prolonged sleep deprivation does lead to the appearance of serious mental symptoms.

BBCNews discusses the issue as a TV show has contestants go through sleep deprivation in order to win money. Read their reactions. Moreover, they quote Israeli Prime Minister Begin who had been tortured in his days in the Soviet Union. He said the following in his book:

“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.

“I 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.”

They also quote John Schlapobersky who had been tortured as well, in South Africa:

“Making a programme in which people are deprived of sleep is like treating them with medication that will make them psychotic. It also demeans the experiences of those who have involuntarily gone through this form of torture. It is the equivalent of bear-baiting, and we banned that centuries ago.

“I was kept without sleep for a week in all. I can remember the details of the experience, although it took place 35 years ago. After two nights without sleep, the hallucinations start, and after three nights, people are having dreams while fairly awake, which is a form of psychosis.

“By the week’s end, people lose their orientation in place and time – the people you’re speaking to become people from your past; a window might become a view of the sea seen in your younger days. To deprive someone of sleep is to tamper with their equilibrium and their sanity.”

This article, Is Sleep Deprivation Torture? provides research showing the debilitating consequences of lack of sleep. This is key:

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.

If your end-goal is to get credible information, what good is making a detainee get to a point where he can’t communicate coherently?

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 second article on that webpage says the following about the consequences on the individual tortured:

Torture is about reprogramming the victim to succumb to an alternative exegesis of the world, proffered by the abuser. It is an act of deep, indelible, traumatic indoctrination. The abused also swallows whole and assimilates the torturer’s negative view of him and often, as a result, is rendered suicidal, self-destructive, or self-defeating.

Thus, torture has no cut-off date. The sounds, the voices, the smells, the sensations reverberate long after the episode has ended – both in nightmares and in waking moments. The victim’s ability to trust other people – i.e., to assume that their motives are at least rational, if not necessarily benign – has been irrevocably undermined. Social institutions are perceived as precariously poised on the verge of an ominous, Kafkaesque mutation. Nothing is either safe, or credible anymore.

Victims typically react by undulating between emotional numbing and increased arousal: insomnia, irritability, restlessness, and attention deficits. Recollections of the traumatic events intrude in the form of dreams, night terrors, flashbacks, and distressing associations.

The tortured develop compulsive rituals to fend off obsessive thoughts. Other psychological sequelae reported include cognitive impairment, reduced capacity to learn, memory disorders, sexual dysfunction, social withdrawal, inability to maintain long-term relationships, or even mere intimacy, phobias, ideas of reference and superstitions, delusions, hallucinations, psychotic microepisodes, and emotional flatness.

Depression and anxiety are very common. These are forms and manifestations of self-directed aggression. The sufferer rages at his own victimhood and resulting multiple dysfunction. He feels shamed by his new disabilities and responsible, or even guilty, somehow, for his predicament and the dire consequences borne by his nearest and dearest. His sense of self-worth and self-esteem are crippled.

In a nutshell, torture victims suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their strong feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame are also typical of victims of childhood abuse, domestic violence, and rape. They feel anxious because the perpetrator’s behavior is seemingly arbitrary and unpredictable – or mechanically and inhumanly regular.

This is what the CIA has in its manual from 1983 on torture:

“The purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist. Regression is basically a loss of autonomy, a reversion to an earlier behavioral level. As the subject regresses, his learned personality traits fall away in reverse chronological order. He begins to lose the capacity to carry out the highest creative activities, to deal with complex situations, or to cope with stressful interpersonal relationships or repeated frustrations.”

Note that the purpose of “coercive techniques” is to break down the individual to his earlier, regressive (and more animalistic) state. If in that state, how can he communicate what he knows with you effectively? Moreover, how does this process effect the individual applying the “coercive techniques?”

Finally this article shows how the United States itself has previously called sleep deprivation torture:

“Torture lite” is still torture. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has ruled that sleep deprivation “may in some cases constitute torture.” The United States itself has also declared sleep deprivation to be a form of torture, as exemplified in the 2001 U.S. State Department report on Turkey, Israel, and Jordan that lists sleep deprivation among alleged torture techniques.

There is no exception in the conventions against torture for a war on terrorism. “Torture is always prohibited under any circumstances,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “U.S. officials who take part in torture, authorize it, or even close their eyes to it, can be prosecuted by courts anywhere in the world.” The 1984 Convention for the Prevention of Torture, ratified by the US in 1994, clearly states that: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may by invoked as a justification of torture.”

There is no justification for our nation employing these acts. They are reprehensible, and it will come back to haunt our nation.


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  1. They are reprehensible . . . and a direct violation of Christ’s injunction to treat others as we would be treated. What we employ against enemy soldiers, we can expet will be employed against our own sons and daughters in foreign lands.

  2. Very interesting quotes and citations. Thanks for posting this.

  3. So interesting that he is posting this instead of sleeping. . . is that torture? 😉

  4. Guy,

    I agree. Reciprocity is a far more powerful force than some realize.


    No problem. I’ve written another post on this subject, and will probably continue until either Americans turn away from using torture, or my final breath slips out of my mouth and my spirit joins God back in the Spirit World.


    I hear ya, I gotta spend less time on the Internet.

  5. Yawn. Sorry, feel asleep reading your dreary post. No, sleep dep is not torture, unless you concede caring for new borns is also torture.

  6. I am always amazed at the great lengths advocates of torture go to stretch logic.

  7. I am always amazed at the great lengths you take to avoid answering my questions.

  8. Um, did you even ask a question?

  9. […] In many respects Gardners symptoms were similar to those experienced by a New York disk jockey, Peter Tripp, who endured a 200-hour sleepless marathon to raise money for the March of Dimes. During the course of his ordeal his thoughts became increasingly distorted and there were marked periods of irrationality. By the end of four days he could not successfully execute simple tests requiring focused attention. In addition, he began to have hallucinations and distorted visual perceptions. At one point Tripp became quite upset when he thought that the spots on a table were insects. He thought that there were spiders crawling around the booth and even once complained that they had spun cobwebs on his shoes. Sleep Deprivation IS Torture The Good Democrat […]

  10. If sleep deprivation is torture, then several of my professors ought to be arrested and tried. Seriously, it’s unpleasant (unless you enjoy hallucinating) but it doesn’t even come close to qualifying. It’s like listening to Brittney Spears music… no, probably not that bad. Nothing’s that bad!

  11. Also, as far as reciprocity is concerned: Duh! Of course we can expect captured US troops to be tortured. Name a war, any war! If we don’t torture prisoners, US troops aren’t going to get any better treatment though. The US has tortured prisoners in every war in the last century. This isn’t a new issue, just a more publicized one. If you find torture morally repugnant yee-hah for you, but don’t bring up the non-issue of “reciprocity.” It’s a completely moot point: US troops will be tortured, period. Sad, but true.

  12. Latter Day Guy,

    Thanks for commenting. Let me ask you a question. If sleep deprivation is really not that bad, and is akin to sleepless college nights (believe me I’ve had those too), then how could it be an effective technique on “terrorists?” If it is so harmless that any college kid can survive, why would you think a hardened warrior cannot?

  13. Survive? Who’s survived? The teachers got the information they wanted out of me too! It’s effective.

    Seriously, I’m not saying it is a nice thing to do, but your question begs another question: how ought we to define torture in general? Is anything unpleasant–which makes someone talk–torture? It doesn’t seem like there is any dividing line that could be non-arbitrary. So, I’m happy to admit that my dividing line is arbitrary: physical pain. Is it overwhelming someone with physical pain to the point that they’d sell out their own mother to make it stop?

    Personally, if you’re driving red-hot needles into someone’s eyes, yeah, that sounds like torture. Keeping them up for long periods of time is admittedly non-hospitable, but it seems that it works by wearing down the will not with pain, but exhaustion. The same way interragators can sometimes use certain drugs–depending on the circumstances–to wear down the prisoner’s sense of themselves.

    Now, the whole thing is rather academic for me, as I’m not totally opposed to torture (even as I define it) in given circumstances. I think we ought to exhause other options first, but barring that… Bring on the red hot needles!

    If we are against torture, then how do we draw the line in military interrogations? Can we only ask politely? Can we intimidate? Can we threaten torture? At what point does causing fear become torture itself? Where must we stop?

  14. exhause = exhaust

  15. Latter Day Guy,

    I’ve written a lot about torture. This particular post does not cover the entire topic, but is about sleep deprivation exclusively. However, I guide you to this page On Torture which links to all my other posts on torture.

    You’ll find many good posts about the ineffectiveness of torture, what exactly constitutes torture (and yes sleep deprivation is torture, but you’re not describing real sleep deprivation—we’re talking about where you go without sleep for weeks or months, not a day or two), and why the normal techniques are actually far more effective.

    We really do not need to employ torture. But I will tell you the reason, the underlying reason Bush began using it. It has nothing to do with gathering intelligence. It is all about sending a message. “We no longer play nice.” That’s the message we are sending. It’s sad really, because we’re becoming bad guys to the rest of the world, most especially our allies.

  16. Yeah, nasty forms of torture are really really iffy/ illegal/dangerous for whats acceptable in war. And there’s no real way to tell if they work. An innocent person will confess under torture just like a guilty person would. So who’s the actual guilty person? I heard this story about these World War II interrogators who came out against Bush’s policy. Theses guys interrogated Nazis, for crying out loud. And they did it with ping-pong, and making them comfortable! And what’s with Dick Cheney suddenly changing his stance on Iraq when he gets into power? These guys really need to look at the past.

  17. one must remember that sleep is a learned behaivour, adapted by syncronisation of the foetus with the sleeping mother. It is evolutionary from the need to lay low and keep quiet at night to protect ourselves from predators. It is physicaly possible to live without sleep because we get our energy from food, but in order for the state of no sleep to be learnt our mothers must never sleep. unfortuantly this will never happen and the human race will forever be conditioned to sleep.

  18. In response to Latter- Day- Guy’s comment, sleep deprivation is torture not only psychologically but in term’s of pain response… as that Israeli PM commented, its worse than going without food or water… aside from that pain that is a result of the mere urge to sleep, which you really won’t have experienced in everyday life, there’s also muscle cramps that travel up your body, and a significantly increased sensitivity to pain. Poking somebody who has been sleep deprived to this extent is enough to make them scream in pain etc etc
    I suspect that a number of people need to distinguish sleep deprivation as a torture technique from sleep deprivation in everyday life. There are enormous differences between those two experiences and it really needs to be stressed that plenty of people go without sleep sometimes for a day or two. It does NOT feel the same as sleep deprivation for torture- the name is the same but that is it!!
    And its not really, biologically speaking, physically possible to survive without sleep. It increases energy consumption to such an extent that food intake cannot substitute sleep and the eventuating weight loss will kill the individual 😛

  19. My sleeping has got better, thanks to the internet and websites like this one. What in your opinion is the best website for sleep deprivation? Thanks

  20. Well… call me some sort of idiot, i’m testing it for myself in the name of science. Wish me luck.

  21. I can’t believe I missed this gem! and the ads for sleeping aids… lol hilarious!

  22. I can’t say first hand on the torture aspect of sleep deprivation. However, sleep deprivation is torture, even if it’s a physiological event. I have had episodes of sleep deprivation lasting anywhere from days to two months. You feel like you’re in hell and just want to die. When seeking medical help, physicians want to lecture on Michael Jackson or Marilyn Monroe. Pahleeze, just f’n help me! Do I have to take matters into my own hands before anyone takes me seriously? Sleep deprivation is hell!!!!

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