Getting used to torture, and what surgery has to do with it

Can you get desensitized to grisly procedures?

In last week’s NY Times column, Pauline Chen looks at the declassified torture memos and thinks about the first time a doctor-in-training cuts through skin during an operation.

“Most people “” actually anyone who has experienced even a paper cut “” are hesitant to slice through flesh,” writes Dr. Chen. “Aspiring surgeons are no different. Their first efforts are tentative and almost always memorable.”

But, after awhile they get used to it.

She then considers those who participate in waterboarding and other grisly techniques of interrogation, and how they can get habituated to torture.

It’s somewhat disconcerting to think that most people can become desensitized to such acts, but Dr. Chen points out that’s what surgeons do on a daily basis: “I am someone who has learned “” become habituated “” to performing a whole host of unusual and, depending on your point-of-view, potentially gruesome undertakings: poking sharp objects into other people, removing organs and extremities, and switching parts between the dead and the living. And as I implied to my friend, even cutting the flesh of another human being can become just another part of your day job.”