A tour of torture methods

02 November 2006

THERE IS a magnificent art museum in Bruges, one of whose galleries is dedicated to images of ghastly martyrdoms. Here is St Catherine crushed under the wheel, there St Laurence charred against the griddle.

I visited it as a child in the company of many other fascinated and bloodthirsty schoolboys, and remember our matron turning to the picture of a pious saint having his skin removed, and explaining that this image was not wholly accurate: human skin didn’t come off quite as easily as the artist had depicted. It seemed a reasonable comment at the time, but now sounds chilling.

Chilling is also an apt description for a new Centre for the Mind in Oxford dedicated to questioning what goes through the mind of a martyr in his or her death throes. Does intense and consuming belief in a god or cause ameliorate the suffering?

On Leading Edge (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) we heard from Baroness Greenfield, who is in charge of the centre, about this and other experiments that aim to question not the validity of belief, but the mechanisms by which it operates.

Contrary to reports in the press, the centre is not going to wire up human guinea pigs and apply hot chilli paste to their skin. It is reluctant to say what it is going to do, because prior knowledge of the process by the subject might interfere with the experiment; or, in other words, it’ll spoil the surprise.

But, if you want a clue, look to the United States, where a recent experiment put a group of nuns on intravenous drips. They were asked to meditate, and when they reached the point of transcendent “oneness” with God, they pressed a button that filled their bloodstream with a harmless dye to tell which bits of the brain were involved in prayer.


It’s the sort of experiment you’d expect to take place in the state-funded laboratory of some unreconstructed socialist dictatorship. Which parts of the brain light up when exposed to party propaganda? No doubt somewhere in darkest North Korea, such things go on. Tony Plett’s series The Great Leader, the Dear Leader and the Tour Leader (Radio 4, Mondays) did little to de-mystify one of the most isolated nations on earth.

But his programmes were enthralling and entertaining. We were introduced to Nicholas Bonner, a former landscape architect from Cheshire, who had upped sticks to Beijing to become the only tour operator offering trips into North Korea.

A jovial fellow, Mr Bonner takes on the endless frustrations of bureaucracy with great bonhomie, even when the first attempt at a tour ends up as a day-trip to a dismal border town. But Bonner’s intrepid travellers behave as if they would be thrilled by anything, provided it happens within North Korea.

The “sites” consist of a visit to the opera — Kim-il Sung wrote many that celebrate the struggle for independence against Japan — a museum of gifts given by various dodgy regimes to Kim Jong-il, and, curiously, a Buddhist temple where the resident monks praise the courage, generosity and perspicacity of the “Dear Leader”.

On the basis that learning about other cultures is always a good thing, Faith to Faith (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) was also a good thing. In the first of three programmes, in which believers from across the religious divides spend time in each other’s community, we met a young Muslim, Samina, and Jenny, who belongs to a lively Pentecostal church. Their experiences were recorded as audio diaries, but the intimacy this might have provided simply deadened the programme. Without doubt a worthy programme, but one that needed fiery and articulate protagonists.

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