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Sleep deprivation... as a form of torture

Tuesday, January 24, 2017 by Rhonda Locke

No matter how many times we discuss it, it seems some people still dismiss the extreme effect drowsiness or sleep deprivation can have on our health, mind and cognitive actions.

In fact, sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture throughout history.

Think that sounds absurd? Read the dark stories and make up your own mind…

Witch hunters in Scotland

In 16th century Scotland, civilians participated in several nationwide witch hunts. At the height of sorcery and witch hysteria, women who allegedly practised witchcraft were captured and trialled.

The civilians needed a confession from the accused before a conviction, and thus "waking the witch" was born. It involved depriving the woman of sleep for days, after which they would begin to hallucinate.

The things captured women said and did during these hallucinations were interpreted as their “confessions” – today, we might describe such incidents as psychotic episodes – and as such the women were convicted of witchcraft.

Sounds somewhat preposterous, doesn’t it? But in those days, mass hysteria – the phenomenon that transmits the “illusion of threat” through society – was fuelled by fear, rumours, and panic.


Japanese Prisoner of War (POW) camps

Japan’s war camps were filled with a mix of military personnel (POW) and civilians. There were around 175 camps in Japan alone, but dozens more in Japan-occupied countries, including China, Thailand, Korea, and Hong Kong.

Those thought to hold critical information were held captive in various POW camps. Throughout WWII, around 140,000 military personnel were captured.

Sleep deprivation was one form of torture during interrogations. Other forms included:

  • Solitary confinement
  • Blindfolding
  • Meal restrictions
  • Forcing prisoners to assume uncomfortable or painful positions

  • All of these techniques were designed to force prisoners to reveal information.

    South Africa during Apartheid

    South Africa’s racial segregation movement, Apartheid, began in 1948 and was abolished just over 20 years ago, in 1994.

    John Schlapobersky

    John Schlapobersky is a psychotherapist who was tortured through sleep deprivation in South Africa sometime during the 1960s. Schlapobersky reported hallucinations after two nights, and after three, people were “having dreams while awake, which is a form of psychosis". He also described a feeling of distortion of people, places and even the concept of time. Schlapobersky was kept awake for a week in total.

    Women in prison

    Black women in prison during Apartheid were subjected to torture in forms of abuse, rape and sleep deprivation. As hallucinations began, women had growing fears that men were attempting to enter their cells to grab them.


    British Army

    London Cage

    The London Cage is the name for one of Britain’s most well known POW facilities during WWII.  It was run by the Prisoner of War Interrogation Section (PWIS), and the ‘cage’ refers to the space where prisoners were interrogated. There were nine cages in total across Southern England and Scotland.

    Irish Republican Army (IRA)

    Operation Demetrius was the name of an operation by the British Army in August 1971. Almost 350 people were arrested on suspicion of being involved with the IRA.

    During their detention, prisoners reported they were:

  • Abused
  • Beaten
  • Harassed by dogs
  • Deprived of sleep
  • Burnt with cigarettes
  • Starved

  • These torture methods were used to extract information from suspected IRA members.

    Five techniques

    Sleep deprivation is classified as one of five illegal interrogation techniques practised by the British military. The other four were prolonged wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise and food and drink deprivation.

    US military

    Until 2009, it’s alleged sleep deprivation was used as a form of torture to prisoners by the US military. During this time it was not illegal.

    Why though? Is it because it was seen as a non-physical form of torture, and therefore more “tame”? While it leaves no physical signs of harm, the United Nations (UN) still recognises it as a form of torture: it defines torture as "physical or mental" pain or suffering.


    Sleep deprivation

    Deliberate sleep deprivation has been used for centuries, as both a form of torture and a means for interrogation.

    As an interrogation technique, it was believed using sleep deprivation as well as other forms of torture would enhance and assist in extracting information. In fact, some groups diverted from referring to sleep deprivation as “torture”; they called it “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

    However as we have mentioned in the past, severe or extreme sleep deprivation can lead to hallucinations, psychosis, and schizophrenia, not to mention disorderly and irrational statements straight from a captive’s mouth.

    Reflecting on sleep deprivation as a form of torture has been a sombre ride. It is fascinating but also deeply ominous. Are you surprised to learn the prevalence of sleep depravation throughout history?

    You can read more about the effects sleep deprivation has on your health in these two blog posts:

  • The immediate, short-term health effects of sleep deprivation
  • The long-term health effects of sleep deprivation
  • Protecting your assets; to work, at work and home from work
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