If Sister Diana Ortiz isn't expecting to smell it, a whiff of tobacco
smoke can devastate her. She trembles, her hands perspire, her
breathing becomes labored, her stomach churns. Sometimes, she even
feels a throbbing on her back at the spots where her captors in
Guatemala seared her at least 111 times with cigarettes more than 15
"Even talking about it right now makes me go back in time,"
says Ortiz, 44, a Catholic nun and co-founder of the Washington,
D.C.-based Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition
International. "My body automatically remembers it. It's very
difficult to explain."
But doctors studying the physiological effects of such torture are
starting to home in on explanations.
In the wake of prisoner abuse of detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo
Bay, the American Association for the Advancement of Science convened
a panel Monday in Washington on the science of torture. They sought
to answer questions about the psychology of how torturers become
torturers and what the lasting physical and psychological effects
Questions have been raised about whether the prisoner abuse by U.S.
military personnel actually constitutes torture, but researchers in
the field say they have no such doubts. Key factors: The prisoners
were restrained, threatened and humiliated. They will endure similar
physical responses in the future, even if they're not as physically
brutalized as Ortiz was, says Allen Keller, a physician who directs
the New York University Program for Survivors of Torture.
"There isn't any difference between what is being done
psychologically in (the Abu Ghraib prison) photographs and what
happens to other victims of torture," says Keller, part of the
The science of torture is sketchy because it isn't ethical for
researchers to apply abuse or deliberately trigger flashbacks in
survivors to document the body's responses. But there are an
estimated 400,000 torture victims from 90 countries in the USA for
them to observe.
The current theory is that torture not only harms the body, but it
also corrupts the portion of the brain that screams at the body to
fight back or flee -- when the body is restrained and can do neither.
That function comes from the same section where sensory perception
functions operate, so a new and destructive pattern of reactions to
sounds, smells and images is branded into the programming.
At the same time, the front portion of the brain responsible for
filing memories in their proper chronological places is disabled,
says Bessel van der Kolk, a professor at the Boston University School
of Medicine and a leading researcher in the neuroscience of trauma.
Like a computer hard disk unable to store its data properly, that
part of the brain leaves the horrifying memory out on the brain's
desktop where it can be launched automatically by various situations,
setting into motion an almost uncontr ollable chain of physical
reactions, he says.
"The brain becomes very sensitive to danger, and that reaction
that the person was unable to have at the time of the abuse then is
triggered by certain sounds, smells, physical sensations, images,
light patterns," says van der Kolk, co-author of Traumatic
Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and
Society. "Physical inability at the moment of torture is
probably a very important element of the permanent alteration in the
brain that occurs."
Van der Kolk says the subjugation of the flight-or-fight response
also explains why torture is a more scarring, insidious form of
trauma than that endured by, say, survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist
"Very few people who ran out of the World Trade Center were
permanently damaged in the same way because they ran and ran and were
able to save themselves," van der Kolk says. "Over time,
most people do recover from those experiences unless they had a prior
history of trauma."
Ortiz, an American who had been teaching at a grade school in a
remote Guatemalan village when she was abducted amid civil war in the
late 1980s, could do nothing as her captors burned, slapped and raped
"One never heals from torture," she says. "One merely
learns to cope with the aftermath."