Psychological torture is less well known than physical torture and tends to be subtle and much easier to conceal. In practice the distinctions between physical and psychological torture are often blurred. Physical torture is the inflicting of severe pain or suffering on a person. In contrast, psychological torture is directed at the psyche with calculated violations of psychological needs, along with deep damage to psychological structures and the breakage of beliefs underpinning normal sanity. Torturers often inflict both types of torture in combination to compound the associated effects.
Psychological torture also includes deliberate use of extreme stressors and situations such as mock execution, shunning, violation of deep-seated social or sexual norms and taboos, or extended solitary confinement. Because psychological torture needs no physical violence to be effective, it is possible to induce severe psychological pain, suffering, and trauma with no externally visible effects.
Torture also induces associated psychological effects on those who inflict it. To understand the full psychological effects of torture it is essential that its impact on the torturer be studied as well.
Examples of psychological stress include: paralyzing fear of death or pain, uncertainty, unfulfilled anticipation, fear for (and of) others and desire for (and of) others. But torture also creates other extreme dynamics, and can disrupt usual cognitive processes to such an extent that the subject is unable to retain the usual sense of personal boundaries, friends and enemies, love and hate, and other major human psychological dynamics. It is necessary that the torturer empathize with their victim, as they cannot reliably effect the torture without understanding the utility of the pain being inflicted. For example, animals cannot literally torture each other because they cannot understand the utility of the pain itself. Thus they must first be made to understand the consequences of the intended pain.
Although torture induces both physiological and psychological effects, the psychological impact is often greater and tends to remain with the subject long after the actual activity is discontinued. The process of torture is designed to invade and destroy the belief of the subjects in their independence as a human being, to destroy presumptions of privacy, intimacy, and inviolability assumed by the subjects, and to destroy their unspoken trust that these things (or indeed society as a whole) cares, or can save them. Beyond merely invading the subjects' mental, physical independence on a one-to-one level, such acts can be made more damaging via public humiliation, incessant repetition, depersonalization, and sadistic glee, and, on occasion, their opposites, false public praise, insidious pandering, false personalization, and masochistic manipulation.
Beatrice M. Patsalides, Ph.D describes this process in "Ethics of the unspeakable: Torture survivors in psychoanalytic treatment":
"As the gap between the 'I' and the 'me' deepens, dissociation and alienation increase. The subject that, under torture, was forced into the position of pure object has lost his or her sense of interiority, intimacy, and privacy. Time is experienced now, in the present only, and perspective - that which allows for a sense of relativity - is foreclosed. Thoughts and dreams attack the mind and invade the body as if the protective skin that normally contains our thoughts, gives us space to breathe in between the thought and the thing being thought about, and separates between inside and outside, past and present, me and you, was lost."
The CIA summed up the theory of coercion thus:
"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."
Psychologically, torture often creates a state where the mind works against the best interests of the individual, due to the inducement of such emotions as shame, worthlessness, dependency, and a feeling of lacking uniqueness. Cunning torturers often induce pandered pride, specious worthiness, false favoritism, and grandiose specialness to further fool the subject. These and other responses can lead to a mutated, fragmented, or discredited personality and belief structure. Even the subject's normal bodily needs and functions (e.g., sleep, sustenance, excretion, etc.) can be changed and made to be construed as self-degrading, animalistic, and dehumanizing.
Torture can rob the subject of the most basic modes of relating to reality, and thus can be the equivalent of cognitive death. A person's sense of self can be shattered. The tortured often have nothing familiar to hold on to: family, home, personal belongings, loved ones, language, name. They can lose their mental resilience and sense of freedom. They can feel alienated—unable to communicate, relate, attach, or empathize with others.
As normal developing human beings, people internalize certain concepts needed to support their ability to face life. For example, they come to understand that there are people and authorities who will support them, they psychologically become independent and individual from their peer group (individuation), they believe they have validity, purpose and "a place" simply by virtue of being a human being and that they are not simply an "object". They have many life-experiences which give them pride and self-confidence, and so on. These are profound platforms for growth and, if removed or damaged, can change a person's entire ability to know what and who they are in relationship to the world. They can be devastated.
Torture splinters these by guile and sheer force, using both psychological design and the impact of massive unavoidable sustained physical pain. In doing so, it shatters deep down narcissistic fantasies of uniqueness, omnipotence, invulnerability, and impenetrability which help sustain personality. Seeking an alternate means to comprehend the changed world, torture subjects grow into a fantasy of merging with an idealized and omnipotent (though not benign) other—the inflicter of agony. The twin processes of individuation and separation which sustain independent adulthood are reversed.
Beatrice Patsalides describes this process:
"As the gap between the 'I' and the 'me' deepens, dissociation and alienation increase. The subject that, under torture, was forced into the position of pure object has lost his or her sense of interiority, intimacy, and privacy. Time is experienced now, in the present only, and perspective—that which allows for a sense of relativity—is foreclosed. Thoughts and dreams attack the mind and invade the body as if the protective skin that normally contains our thoughts, gives us space to breathe in between the thought and the thing being thought about, and separates between inside and outside, past and present, me and you, was lost."
Psychologist, Shirley Spitz observes:
"Pain is also unshareable in that it is resistant to language ... All our interior states of consciousness: emotional, perceptual, cognitive and somatic can be described as having an object in the external world ... This affirms our capacity to move beyond the boundaries of our body into the external, sharable world. This is the space in which we interact and communicate with our environment. But when we explore the interior state of physical pain we find that there is no object "out there"—no external, referential content. Pain is not of, or for, anything. Pain is. And it draws us away from the space of interaction, the sharable world, inwards. It draws us into the boundaries of our body."
A common factor of psychological torture, at times the only factor, is to extend the activity to family, friends, and others for whom the subject has a deep concern (the "social body"). This further disrupts the individual's familiar expectations of their environment, their control over their circumstances, and the strength of (and ability to help and be helped by) their closest relationships and lifelong support network. Shunning, a form of social/sexual torture used by some groups against former members, is one example of the systemic extension of psychological torture to spouses, family and friends.
The psychologist Shirley Spitz offers this powerful overview of the contradictory nature of torture:
"Torture is an obscenity in that it joins what is most private with what is most public. Torture entails all the isolation and extreme solitude of privacy with none of the usual security embodied therein ... Torture entails at the same time all the self exposure of the utterly public with none of its possibilities for camaraderie or shared experience. (The presence of an all powerful other with whom to merge, without the security of the other's benign intentions.)
Inevitably, in the aftermath of torture, its subjects feel helpless and powerless. This loss of control over one's life and body is manifested physically in impotence, attention deficits, and insomnia. This is often exacerbated by the disbelief many torture subjects encounter, especially if they are unable to produce scars, or other "objective" proof of their ordeal. Language cannot communicate such an intensely private experience as pain.
Long-term coping mechanisms include the development of compulsive rituals to fend off obsessive thoughts. Other psychological consequences 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 flat affect.
Depression and anxiety are very common. These are forms and manifestations of self-directed aggression. The sufferer rages at their own suffering and resulting multiple dysfunction. They feel shamed by their new disabilities and responsible, or even guilty, somehow, for their predicament and the dire consequences borne by their nearest and dearest. Their sense of self-worth and self-esteem are crippled.
Torturers and bystanders resent the tortured because the tortured make the perpetrators and bystanders who collude with the torture feel guilty and ashamed for having tortured and/or for having done nothing to prevent the atrocity. The sufferers threaten their sense of security and their much-needed belief in predictability, justice, and rule of law. The sufferers, on their part, do not believe that it is possible to effectively communicate to "outsiders" what they have been through. Author K. Zetnik is on record calling the Auschwitz torture chambers "another galaxy", during his testimony at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961.
Kenneth Pope, in "Torture," a chapter he wrote for the "Encyclopedia of Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of Society on Gender," quotes Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman:
One of the apparent ringleaders of the Abu Ghraib prison torture incident, Charles Graner Jr., exemplified some of these when he was reported to have said, "The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.'