The Truth about Truth Serums

A staple of old spy films, can you actually inject somebody with a drug that will make them reliably spill the beans to you?

The modern idea of a drug that could ensure someone is telling the truth originated with a doctor named Robert House in 1916. House was an obstetrician that practiced in a small town called Ferris just outside of Dallas, Texas. While delivering a baby on September 7 of that year, he injected the mother with scopolamine as a pain killer putting her into a state of "twilight sleep." After the baby was born House asked the father if he had a small set of scales to weigh the baby, but the father didn't know where they were located. His wife, apparently still asleep, however, spoke up and said, 'They are in the kitchen on a nail behind the picture." (Which they were).

The wife, when she awoke, neither remembered the incident nor any of the pain associated with the delivery. It occurred to House that somehow the drug had shut down the higher levels of the brain while leaving her mind still able to answer simple questions. As he experimented with it he became convinced that the answers given under scopolamine where always completely truthful and the drug could be used for forensic inquiries.

House wasn't the first person to notice that certain substances affected the brain and elicited truthful answers. The Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder supposedly said, In vino veritas which translates to "in wine there is truth" after observing the how intoxicated people often speak what's in their mind without regard to the consequences.

Pliny the Elder felt that wine would get at the truth.

House thought scopolamine, however, would be a lot more reliable in eliciting truth than a bottle of Burgundy and went on a campaign to see it adopted as a standard law-enforcement tool.

To his credit, House wasn't as interested in convicting people of crimes with the drug as he was at proving their innocence. In a least one experiment House was able to show that the subject in question, a man named Scrivener, while under influence of the drug, denied being involved in a robbery for which he was being prosecuted. Later it was shown that Scrivener was indeed in another city at the time of the crime (in police custody), just like he had said under the influence of the drug.

House became an enthusiastic proponent of the drug's use and in the years following his observations police departments experimented with scopolamine and other similar drugs (scopolamine itself had a number of undesireable side effects that limited its use). One of the other popular substances used for this purpose was sodium thiopental (marketed under the brand name Sodium Pentothal).

Sodium Pentothal

Sodium Pentothal is member of a class of drugs called "barbiturates" that depress the nervous system (similar to the effects of alcohol). It tends to decrease inhibitions and slow creative thinking, making it harder to come up with and remember lies. While it is popular to refer to any of these drugs as truth serums neither scopolamine nor Sodium Pentothal is a serum. The use of the word is a misnomer as serums are derived from animal blood and used mainly for inoculations against diseases.

In 1963 the United States Supreme court ruled that confessions that came as a result drugs were "unconstitutionally coerced" and couldn't be used in court. In addition, experts had come to the conclusion that things said under the influence of the drugs were also unreliable. They might be the truth, they might be a fantasy or they might be the result of the drugged person just trying to please the questioner.

Dr. Robert House injects an inmate in prison in an experiment to find the truth.

This made the truth serums of limited interest to the law enforcement community. However, they did have some medical use to psychiatrics as they could be administered to patients who had been through a trauma and they seemed to assist them in talking about their experience. This, in turn, made the patients feel better and it didn't really matter if what they were saying was the objective truth or only something that they believed.

The CIA and Mind Control

Even though law enforcement lost interest in truth serums as any evidence they uncovered could not be used in court, intelligence agencies still found them interesting. The information the spy agencies needed wasn't necessarily something that would useful in a court room.

In fact, starting right after World War II the CIA conducted a program designed not just to produce a drug that would force a subject to answer truthfully, but also to control a person's mind and get them to do things they would not normally have done.

The program, best known as MKUltra, ran from about 1950 through the early 1970's under various names. Much of what was done turned out to be illegal and unethical. A favorite drug of choice by these experiments was Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). LSD is a powerful agent that causes visual hallucinations and illusions (colloquially known as "trips"). It is odorless and tasteless and the effect can last for as long as 12 hours.

Experiments with the drug showed it was too unpredictable to be used as a truth drug, but the CIA thought it might have other uses (for example, slipping it to a unsuspecting person about to give an important speech in an attempt to discredit them). For this reason the agency experimented by giving "surprise" trips to unsuspecting personal. Unfortunately this caused one subject, an Army doctor named Frank Olson, to go into a deep depression and leap from a 13 story building.

Report into the CIA's illegal activites with LSD and other drugs.

The CIA also tried using a combination barbiturates (known as a "downers") injected into one arm and an amphetamine (an "upper") injected in the other. The effect was to cause the person to babble without control. In this state the interrogator could then attempt to ask questions and get answers.

In 1973 the CIA became fearful of their illegal work being exposed and the director at the time, Richard Helms, ordered all MKUltra files destroyed, so many details of the project are unknown even today.

BBC Experiment

So do truth serums really work? In 2014 BBC correspondent Michael Mosley, as part of a series on drugs, decided to find out. Under the care of anesthetist Dr. Austin Leach, Mosley was given a low dose of Sodium thiopental. When asked what his profession was he was able to tell his questioner that he was a heart surgeon instead of a journalist and even make up a supporting story about the last operation he had performed.

When the dose was increased, however, and the question repeated he cheerful volunteered that he was a television producer. Later on, when asked why he didn't lie, he answered "because the thought of lying never occurred to me." So drugs designed to elect the truth can work. The main problem, besides being inadmissible in court, is that they can work too well, and the subject might not just start babbling the truth to the interrogator, but also falsehoods designed not designed to fool the questioner, but to please them.

However, there a clearly agencies and organizations that would love to find a reliable truth serum and with our ever increasing repertor of medications and a growing understanding of how the brain works, it may not be too long before such a drug exists. They question is under what circumstances would it be ethical to use it?

Copyright Lee Krystek 2017. All Rights Reserved.