Psychological factors in exceptional, extreme and torturous environments

John Leach

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Our cognitive system has adapted to support goal-directed behaviour within a normal environment. An abnormal environment is one to which we are not optimally adapted but can accommodate through the development of coping strategies. These abnormal environments can be ‘exceptional’, e.g., polar base, space station, submarine, prison, intensive care unit, isolation ward etc.; ‘extreme’, marked by more intense environmental stimuli and a real or perceived lack of control over the situation, e.g., surviving at sea in a life-raft, harsh prison camp etc.; or ‘tortuous’, when specific environmental stimuli are used deliberately against a person in an attempt to undermine his will or resistance. The main factors in an abnormal environment are: psychological (isolation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, sleep deprivation, temporal disorientation); psychophysiological (thermal, stress positions), and psychosocial (cultural humiliation, sexual degradation). Each single factor may not be considered tortuous, however, if deliberately structured into a systemic cluster may constitute torture under legal definition. The individual experience of extremis can be pathogenic or salutogenic and attempts are being made to capitalise on these positive experiences whilst ameliorating the more negative aspects of living in an abnormal environment.
Original languageEnglish
Article number7
JournalExtreme Physiology & Medicine
Early online date1 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016


  • Exceptional environment
  • Extreme environment
  • Psychological torture
  • Sensory duress
  • Physical stress
  • Degradation
  • Pathogenic
  • Salutogenic


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