Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Project Torquemada 

Our distinguished colleague Scaramouche (a preliminary Koufax nominee for Blog Most Deserving of Wider Recognition) saw the following item about an Oxford research team attempting to determine whether there is a correlation between religious faith and the ability to withstand torture. The first question that occurred to him: who wants to know, and why?
One aspect of the two-year study will involve followers of both religious and secular beliefs being burnt to see if they can handle more pain than others.

Some volunteers will be shown religious symbols such as crucifixes and images of the Virgin Mary during the torture.

Researchers believe the study may improve understanding of faith, how robust it is and how easily it can be dislodged . . . .

Dr Alison Gray, a spokeswoman for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: "The experience of pain depends on biological factors such as the amount of tissue damage and release of natural pain killers - endorphins - in the brain.

"We know anecdotally that religious believers can tolerate great pain when there is a specific purpose, and I would speculate that this would operate via endorphin release.

"Religious practices such as prayer and meditation release endorphins and would in theory increase the pain threshold.
Volunteers will be "tortured" by means of a chili-based gel which creates a burning sensation when applied to the skin, or a heating pad that reaches temperatures of up to 140° F. No word yet as to what sort of iconography will be shown to volunteers who practice religions other than Christianity -- Islam, for example . . . .

If your religion happens to be Doom 3 or Half-Life 2, however, the news is all good. Researchers working the other side of the fence -- i.e. the ones who aim to alleviate suffering -- have discovered that immersive virtual-reality environments can be extremely effective in helping burn victims cope with their pain when even morphine won't help:
For the last seven years, doctors and nurses at Harborview, a leading regional burn center, have strapped patients into high-tech headgear that transports them to a virtual world of cool snowmen and waddling penguins while their wounds are cleaned, dressings changed and healing skin stretched during physical therapy, typically the most painful experiences for these victims . . . .

Immersed in "SnowWorld", patients reportedly experience as much as a 60 percent reduction in pain because their attention is diverted away from the procedures, according to Dr. David Patterson, a psychologist who works with these patients.

Though initially focused only on burn victims, researchers say that in the long term, this attention-grabbing technology will help people, especially children, undergo difficult dental procedures, stay motionless during a CAT scan or overcome post-traumatic stress.

"Except for using drugs, it's a pretty unique experience when your mind goes to a place where your body isn't," says Dr. Hunter Hoffman, who heads the university's study of virtual reality pain relief.

Pain has a significant psychological component. It begins when nerves transmit the feeling of trauma, and the brain interprets how much feeling there will be. By plunging a person into a virtual world, the mind is distracted from processing the pain. The end result is that doctors can cut back on the use of strong, addictive drugs such as morphine . . . .

One of those would-be collaborators is New York City's Weill Cornell Medical Center, one of the largest burn treatment facilities in the country. Weill Cornell just started using the virtual reality technology for burn treatment a few weeks ago, but the hospital has been enlisting the system for almost three years to treat Sept. 11 survivors suffering post-traumatic stress.

Dr. JoAnn Difede, an associate professor for the department of psychiatry and the director of Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies Program at Weill Cornell Medical College, has used the system in her work with at least 15 World Trade Center survivors. These particular patients were having trouble moving forward with their treatment because they could not fully engage their memories of Sept. 11.

Using the VR system, Difede has been able to take her patients into a world that mirrors lower Manhattan before the attacks, and then gradually expose them to a virtual simulation of the day's events, complete with network news sound footage of the actual events.

The treatment gives patients the ability to reconnect with their memories of that day, an important step for the healing process, says Difede.
The current administration will no doubt have every reason to take a strong interest in both research projects over the next four years.

UPDATE: There are many things to be said about America's embrace of torture, but we do not expect to see a post more eloquent than this.

UPDATE II (via our esteemed colleague Orc at This Space for Rent): Sure, your elected representatives would like to join the rest of the civilized world by taking a stand against torture, but the issue is just so darned . . . complex:
At the urging of the White House, Congressional leaders scrapped a legislative measure last month that would have imposed new restrictions on the use of extreme interrogation measures by American intelligence officers, Congressional officials say . . . .

The Senate had approved the new restrictions, by a 96-to-2 vote, as part of the intelligence reform legislation. They would have explicitly extended to intelligence officers a prohibition against torture or inhumane treatment, and would have required the C.I.A. as well as the Pentagon to report to Congress about the methods they were using.

But in intense closed-door negotiations, Congressional officials said, four senior members from the House and Senate deleted the restrictions from the final bill after the White House expressed opposition.

In a letter to members of Congress, sent in October and made available by the White House on Wednesday in response to inquiries, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, expressed opposition to the measure on the grounds that it "provides legal protections to foreign prisoners to which they are not now entitled under applicable law and policy" . . . .

In interviews on Wednesday, both Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican negotiator, and Representative Jane Harman of California, a Democratic negotiator, said the lawmakers had ultimately decided that the question of whether to extend the restrictions to intelligence officers was too complex to be included in the legislation.
We saw the following line earlier today but we can't remember where, so our apologies to the author: When 2008 rolls around, George will have to put Jeb in the White House. It's the only way to keep the documents from coming out.

UPDATE (1/13): A tip of the imperial diadem to our esteemed colleague Michael of 2Millionth Web Log, who tracked the wisecrack above back to its source: Robert Parry of Consortium News. When we steal, we steal exclusively from the best.

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