Rotten to the Core

Democracy Now’s excellent interview with University of Wisconsin scholar and torture historian Al McCoy contains this amazing exchange:

“Well, they were the latest in a long history of American and Canadian psychologists helping the CIA design its interrogation protocols. This is an extraordinarily long history that goes back to 1951, when the CIA, in alliance with British and Canadian psychologists, set out to crack the code of human consciousness. And they worked with a very famous Canadian psychologist named Donald O. Hebb. And he conducted a series of experiments from 1951 to ’54 that discovered the basic concept of sensory deprivation or sensory disorientation, which, when you read the Senate report, that is the core of the CIA’s tactics.”

Neuroscientists will recognize Hebb as the name behind the “Hebbian synapse” and “Hebbian learning”- the claim that higher level cognitive functions should be accounted for by the underlying principle that “neurons which fire together wire together.” According to recent work, in particular that of Randy Gallistel, this was the wrong turn which resulted in neuropsychology “barking up the wrong tree” for half a century.

Interesting to see him installed at the ground floor of the CIA’s torture regime. As my dad always said, “When someone’s rotten, they’re rotten to the core.” “A very wise principle”, Noam confirmed when I asked him about it.

A great non-technical interview where Randy delivers the goods can be found here.

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