‘The Guineapigs’ by John McGuffin (1974, 1981)

Chapter 2
What is Sensory Deprivation?

Sensory deprivation (SD) refers literally to the artificial deprivation of the senses – auditory, visual, tactile and kinesthetic. In connection with the Northern Ireland 'guineapigs' it meant (1) hooding prisoners prior to their interrogation; (2) constant use of a sound machine which produces white noise', a high pitched hissing, mushy sound; (3) long periods of immobilization, being forced to lean against a wall, legs wide apart with only the fingertips touching the wall; (4) little or no food or drink; and (5) being forced to wear loose overalls, several sizes too big. In addition, (6) prisoners were deprived of sleep for days on end; while not technically SD this accentuates the process. There is a purpose behind all these actions. Measures (1), (2), (3) and (5) cause visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile deprivation while measures (4) and (6) deprive the brain of oxygen and sugar necessary for normal functioning. In addition, measures (1), (4) and (6) may disturb the normal body metabolism.

Since the l950s there have been many experiments into SD but the pace particularly accelerated after the Korean War. In 1958 at McGill University, Montreal, Hebb conducted the most detailed experiments up to that date.[1] Volunteer students were isolated in an air-conditioned room. They wore translucent goggles so that they could only see a blur of light. They could hear nothing but a constant buzzing noise and they had to wear long cuffs which meant that they couldn't touch anything. As incentive they were offered $20 for every day they could stay in the room, and each had a 'panic button' which they had only to press to obtain instant relief. They were provided with a comfortable bed and good food.
     To start with, the volunteers tended to sleep, but soon they found that it was becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate and they developed an acute desire for any kind of stimulation to break the monotony. Many then began to experience startling visual and auditory hallucinations and after a while were unable to distinguish waking from sleeping. Despite the high pay for just lying on their backs, few could last more than two days and the most anyone lasted was five days. Upon release they were given simple psychological tests which showed that their perceptions had become very disorientated – objects became blurred and fuzzy. More important from the investigators' point of view, while under the SD, they were found to be much more susceptible to any type of propaganda – a finding which Bexton et al. had indicated four years previously.[2]

Another psychologist, J.C. Lilly, had studied sensory isolation in 1956 by immersing volunteers in a tank of lukewarm water.[3] They had face-masks through which to breathe but these also prevented any patterned light from penetrating through. Thus there was little stimulation from light, noise or clothing. Under these conditions subjects became bored and were unable to concentrate, leading in some cases to mental disturbance. The maximum time that any volunteer could last under these conditions was only three hours. Subjects reported feelings of unreality, with a profound loss of identification. They didn't know who they were, where they were, or what was happening to them, and the ensuing feelings of panic forced them all to abandon the experiment.

In 1959 Smith and Lewty confined volunteer nurses in a silent room to see how long they could stick it.[4] The incentive offered was an equal amount of paid leave for each day they lasted. They were given a comfortable bed and were even allowed to walk about the room. All volunteers who lasted for more than ten hours reported disordered thinking, and two thirds of them reported fear and panic. Some reported body-image distortions such as 'my head was like a spinning cone going away from my body'. Some experienced violent nightmares and fairly acute paranoia. [Nightmares are commonly experienced during bouts of SD; see Zubek et al.[5] and Freedman et al.[6]]

During the l960s experiments into SD proliferated. But why did so many psychologists and physiologists want to conduct this research? What practical or medical use was it? And where did all the money come from? In fact, justification for any use of SD outside of interrogation techniques or torture is slight. Back in 1959 Smith and Lewty claimed that SD 'is an important psychiatric tool. It has been used to explain mental abnormalities in various types of illness. Senile nocturnal delirium has also been ascribed to a diminished efficiency of the sensory apparatus and impaired ability to adapt to new sensory stimuli.' By and large this is nonsense. Apart from some limited application in the clinical field of eye surgery, what relevance does this research have? As Dr. Tim Shallice says, 'since the initial Montreal experiments an enormous amount of research has been done but it seems to have contributed little of general theoretic interest to the rest of psychology with the exception of its impetus for arousal theory in the 1950s (eg. Hebb, 1955)'[7]. Zubek and Bross's 1972 work may be another exception, but there are not many.

Why then has all this work been done? One important cause is that military agencies have pumped a considerable amount of money into the research, for obvious reasons.
     Another vital reason seems to be the sociological phenomenon first discussed by Tulving and Madigan (1970) in the context of verbal learning research: the functional autonomy of methods' describing it by. yesterday's methods have become today's objects of study'.[8] A research field develops whose methods and problems are internally generated. For workers within it. its relevance to other fields of science or its applications become of secondary interest. It becomes self-perpetuating and semi-autonomous, dependent only on external agencies for financial support and psychology as a whole for its academic respectability.

And the 'external agencies who provide the finance? Some of the more blatant examples are the book by Biderman and Zimmer (1961) devoted to research on interrogation methods which was sponsored by the US Air Force,[9] and Vernon's Inside the Black Room, whose acknowledgement states: 'The entire project was made possible by a generous grant-in-aid of research given by the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army, and by the National Science Foundation.' On p.16 of his book Vernon adds that 'while our goal is pure knowledge for its own sake, we have no objection to someone's use of that knowledge'.[10] That Vernon isn't quite as naive as the previous statement would appear to indicate is soon seen on the next page where he admits that the Hebb experiments at McGill University, while ostensibly devised because of problems of people doing boring jobs suffering from visual hallucinations, were sponsored by the Canadian Defence Research Board, and conducted because of brainwashing techniques used on American POWs in Korea. As Vernon further admits, however, 'the researchers were not permitted to say so in their first publications'. Apart from these two books there are numerous articles and papers,[11] but more insidious perhaps is the funding of research programmes into SD at various colleges. institutes and universities by large corporations, 'charitable societies' and 'private benefactors' etc. all part of the sinister and at times as in the case of Vietnam, genocidal, military-industrial complex.
     The experiments have been going on. What have they proved? Firstly, that SD in its various forms produces very severe effects, both mental and physical. The effects include inability to concentrate, disintegration of logical thought-patterns leading to severe hallucinations – hearing, seeing and feeling things that do not exist. (Examples of these are given in the 'guineapigs’' own stories later in the book.) Hooding causes an imbalance in the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide in the air breathed and this causes mental confusion. The wall-standing, which is deliberately made to sound so innocuous by apologists like Sir Edmund Compton. is extremely painful – especially when accompanied by beatings – and causes, in addition to fatigue and swollen wrists and ankles, poor circulation of the blood which leads to a reduced supply of oxygen and sugar to the brain. The restricted and in some cases almost non-existent diet was also sugar-free (Storr has pointed out that the brain needs three things if it is to function efficiently; sensory stimulation, sugar and oxygen.'[12]). Experiments into the effects of semi-starvation and excessive dieting by various psychologists have consistently shown that the subject's thinking ability was impaired as the effects of the food deprivation increased.[13] Perceptual judgement is also impaired and the subject becomes apathetic and unresponsive. Lack of exercise increases the bad effects. Prolonged sleep deprivation ensures a progressive disintegration of personality and rational behaviour. Paranoid symptoms emerge, and at the same time powers of rational perception appear to be disturbed. Zubek suggests that susceptibility to pain increases, too.[14]
     Here we come to the real root of the trouble from an army s point of view. 'Civilian' research may tell you something about how SD works; it may add to your knowledge of how interrogation methods may be made more effective; it may provide academic kudos and sinecures for army-paid hacks, but it still doesn't go far enough. The reasons are simple. The basic one is that the necessary stress is absent with volunteer subjects. Sargant and others have pointed out that the breakdown process in the individual is almost inevitably accelerated when additional stress is introduced.[15] As Swank and Marchland recorded in their investigations into battle fatigue and crack-ups amongst Allied soldiers in the Second World War, after an average of fifty days' severe combat the great majority of soldiers

lost their ability to distinguish the different noises of combat ... They became easily startled and confused and became tense. They were irritable, frequently 'blew their tops', over-responded to all stimuli ... This state of hyperreactivity was followed insidiously by another group of symptoms referred to as 'emotional exhaustion'. The men became dull and listless, mentally and physically retarded, pre-occupied and unable to remember details. This was accompanied by indifference and apathy ... In such cases bizarre contradictory behaviour could occur.[16]

This is similar to the state of mind the Chinese and Koreans were able to induce in American and British POWs, which Hinkle and Wolff called 'emotional bankruptcy'.[17] The more stress, the sooner the crack-up.

This is where the experiments with volunteers prove inadequate. In most of the experiments the volunteers' motivation for putting up with SD has been money – often not all that much, either. In some cases psychology students who volunteer may have had added motivation in the form of scientific curiosity, but in all cases their surroundings were comfortable, they were well fed, could sleep if they wanted to, knew deep down that they really had little or nothing to be frightened about and, most important of all, had a panic button. They could quit whenever things started to get rough.

In some experiments the Army have doubtless used their own soldiers – though they have not unnaturally been reticent about publishing their findings – and it is known that the 'guards', the men who continually kicked and beat the 'guineapigs' up off the floor and made them lean against the wall each time they collapsed, have had themselves during their training at the several Psychological Warfare Units in England to experience some facets of SD.[18] But even this isn't enough for the ardent researcher or interrogator. The soldiers know that they're going to be rewarded for putting up with the SD. They don't have any information to conceal, they know where they are, who is experimenting on them, that an experiment is going on, that they won't actually be killed or beaten too badly. They cannot be made to experience the blind terror and panic of the 4 a.m. 'knock on the door', the savage beatings, the horror of having not the slightest idea where you are, the knowledge that you can easily be shot dead for 'trying to escape' – the old Spanish 'ley des fuegos' – the knowledge that your family is totally ignorant of your whereabouts. Civilian volunteer experiments into SD often produced feelings of paranoia amongst the subjects; with the Irish victims it was not paranoia, it was very real, genuine fear.
     Civilian experiments have provided some 'useful' data. The military experiments into interrogation techniques in Britain's sordid little colonial wars, especially in Aden, had produced more experience. Northern Ireland, already a testing-ground for the latest military hardware from CS gas to remote-controlled bomb-disposal gadgetry, was to be the scene for one of the evilest experiments yet.

Footnotes Chapter 2:

  1. D. O. Hebb, Textbook of Psychology (Saunders, 1958).
  2. Bexton, Herron and Scott, Effects of Decreased Variation in Sensory Environment', in Canadian Journal of Psychology, 8 (1954), pp. 70-76.
  3. J. C. Lilly, 'Mental Effects of Reduction of Ordinary Levels of Physical Stimuli on Intact Healthy Persons', in Psychological Research Reports, 5 (1956), pp. 1-9.
  4. Smith and Lewty, 'Perceptual Isolation Using a Silent Room', in Lancet, 12 September 1959, pp. 342-5.
  5. J. P. Zubek (ed.), Sensory Deprivation: Fifteen Years of Research (Appleton-Century-Croft, New York, 1969).
  6. Freedman et al., 'Perceptual Cognitive Changes in SD', in P. Solomon, et al. (eds), Sensory Deprivation (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1961).
  7. Article in Cognition, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1973), pp. 385-405.
  8. Tulving and Madigan, 'Memory and Verbal Learning', in Annual Review of Psychology, 21(1970), pp. 437-84.
  9. Biderman and Zimmer, The Manipulation of Human Behaviour (Wiley, New York, 1961).
10. J. Vernon, Inside the Black Room: Studies of Sensory Deprivation (Penguin, 1966).
11. For example: Myers et al., Experimental Assessment of Limited Sensory and Social Environment. Summary Results of the HumRRO Program of the Army Leadership Research Unit'. Monterey, February 1962.
12. Storr. 'Why Hooding is Mental Torture', in the Sunday Times, 21 November 1971.
13. Including Sanford (1937), McClelland and Atkinson (1948), and Gilchrist and Nesberg (1952).
14. J. P. Zubek, 'Prolonged Sensory and Perceptual Deprivation', in British Medical Bulletin, 20, pp. 38-42.
15. W. Sargant, Battle for the Mind (Pan, Revised Edition 1959).
16. R. L. Swank and E. Marchand, 'Combat Neurosis', in American Medical Association Archive of Neurological Psychiatry, 55 (1946), pp. 236-47.
17. Hinkle and Wolff, 'Communist Interrogation', in ibid., 76 (1956).
18. There are Psychological Warfare Units at Catterick, Warminster and Maresfield, for example. Also, see the Parker Report, para. 13.
Lord Gardiner, in his minority report to the Parker Report, admits (para. 6) that in April 1971 'officers and men of the English Intelligence Centre held a seminar on the procedures in Northern Ireland to teach orally the procedures to the Royal Ulster Constabulary'.

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