Scenario: One of the main protagonists of my fictional story (set in the 21st century) has been captured by a certain intelligence agency which is going to use sleep deprivation in order to induce cooperation

(If it makes a difference, the subject is an 11 year old girl, a little chubby, a little autistic, but has a strong will that would be difficult to break)


  • The methodology employed should leave no permanent physical damage. Marks which quickly heal (e.g. from tight restraints) are ok, but the less the better.
  • The sleep deprivation should be the sole method of torture, not being intermixed with other techniques, at least as far as possible. (This is required to acheive the right dramatic effect in the context of my particular story. I don't want my protagonist to say "Ow! My legs hurt!" I want her to say, "I want to sleep... I'll give anything to sleep..." Even if her legs do hurt a little bit, the torment of being unbearably tired should be enough to distract her.)
  • The methodology employed should be "automatic." That is, guards should not be needed to constantly watch her and shake her awake if she starts dosing off, but the agency ought to be able to leave her by herself for hours at a time.
  • Although not a strict requirement, given that the intelligence agency at hand has all sorts of gadgets it could use, nevertheless it would be preferable to use a low-tech method. (The dramatic effect would be welcome. "We have all sorts of advanced equipment at our disposal, but you're so pathetic we don't even need it!")

Thoughts so far and research:

I have mainly been reading about CIA "enhanced interrogation techniques" and the circumstances of individual prisoners for inspiration.

So far, the most ideal method that I found (cf. the CIA's "Cobalt" prison) seems to be to have the subject stand, binding the hands to an overhead bar. (How I think it works is that, when the subject starts falling asleep, the muscles in the legs will relax, causing the subject to start falling.)

This method satisfies all 4 of my above constraints. However, as a writer, I want to see what other options are available to me. (What if the protagonist's cell has no overhead bar available, or if it would be impractical to install one? I say this because I'm entertaining the thought of having the agency invade the home, arrest the parents, and keep the protagonist prisoner in her own room, all while posing under the cover of "child protection" and trying to leave as little evidence of as possible.)

With the exception of the single above-mentioned method, I have not found in my research any other method which would satisfy the constraints of my story. For example, Abu Zubaydah claimed to have been subjected to sleep deprivation by being stretched out horizontally, but it was the excruciating pain from this that kept him awake.

Another idea (cf. my imagination) would be to have some kind of camera to watch the protagonist's eyes; if she leaves them closed for more than a fixed number of seconds, the device would automatically give her an electric shock at a voltage high enough to startle her but low enough to avoid causing significant pain. This is okay, but a less high-tech method would be better.

Another thought is to try to keep her awake by playing loud music or noise. It's pretty low-tech, as everyone these days has a pair of headphones on hand, but I doubt it will work. (I actually experimented with this in real life by playing white noise on my phone at a loud volume and seeing if I could fall asleep. I did.) Another down side to this technique is that it might be classified as sound-torture, violating Constraint #2.

Right now, I think the best bet would be to bind the protagonist in some other position (viz. not to something overhead) where she would be unable to relax her muscles without falling. Maybe some type of sitting position? Maybe by using a piece of furniture to make her stand in a hunched-over position?

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    $\begingroup$ Complete absence of sleep over long periods is not frequent in humans (unless they suffer from fatal familial insomnia or specific issues caused by surgery); it appears that brief microsleeps cannot be avoided. (source: books.google.com/books?id=EaGWMXsR5XYC&pg=PA183 ). I speculate that it would eventually become very difficult or impossible for someone to stay awake without some form of severe pain. $\endgroup$
    – cowlinator
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ Are you seriously asking advice on how to torture a minor and leave no permanent traces? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 2:31
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    $\begingroup$ "induce cooperation" is a euphemism for exactly what? $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 2:40
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    $\begingroup$ I deleted my answer as I realised I'm very uncomfortable giving answers for torture. I would recommend own research for sleep deprivation, as there should be enough to be found. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 6:08
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    $\begingroup$ 'information' and 'turncoat' are very different goals. Multiple goals makes both much harder. Your villain (only a villain would torture a child) should choose a single goal. Hint: Information is much easier and faster. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 18:29

1 Answer 1


Bad Music

I do hesitate to suggest this, given the inhumane nature of this technique, but you could always do what the US government did when it wanted to force Panama dictator Manuel Noriega out of the Holy See's Embassy. As part of a military operation perhaps fittingly titled 'Operation: Just Cause', the US psychological corps surrounding the embassy and started blasting rock music in an attempt to get the dictator to surrender, including such classics such as Kenny Loggins's 'Danger Zone' and Rick Astley's 'Never Gonna Give You Up'. A similar strategy could be used here - just lock the subject within a well-lit cell and blast the room with the terrible music of your choice, on infinite repeat.

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    $\begingroup$ Honestly I don't think this sort of questions should be answered at all. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 15:29

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