Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

i-7ecbdeff99f07365b3e5764022d7b09f-shot.bmpWatching the movie “The Good Shepherd” got me thinking about something: are truth serums real? And if so, has any been proven to work? There was a scene in TGS where a prisoner who was believed to be lying was administered LSD. Now obviously THAT wasn’t a real truth serum (unless you want to hear about the innate truth of teacups or something), but if the CIA was using LSD they were likely using other candidates as well.

Lets just assume for a moment that there existed some potion that extracted the truth from people, rendered them unable to lie when questioned. Wouldn’t that negate free will?

(Continued under the fold…………)


Not so much in the religious sense of the word, but rather in the sense of information or confessions being freely given. It would certainly change our judicial system, where criminals are seen as repentant if they confess their crimes and parole boards would be pretty much moot. My feeling is that our secrets are part of what defines us. I don’t mean secrets like cheating on a spouse or child abuse or something, but rather the thoughts and small actions that we choose to keep to ourselves. Couldn’t it be said that you may define yourself by what you do when no one’s looking–that that is really ‘who you are’? Imagine if that inner life and sense of privacy was taken away by the sheer notion that the truth about ANYTHING could be taken from you, at any time, at will.

Yeah, I’m kinda going off on an Orwellian tangent here, but something about the idea of truth serums makes me think about torture. Maybe it wouldn’t qualify per se, but the idea of betraying yourself, and being helpless to that fact, would be pretty awful. I don’t much like the thought of the US using them or trying to develop them; its like a slap to scientists who want to use science/chemistry for good.

A recent article in the Washington Post called “Some Believe Truth Serums Will Come Back” discusses the issue:

“There is a large number of neural circuits that we are on the verge of being able to manipulate — things that govern states like fear, anxiety, terror and depression,” said Mark Wheelis, a scientist at the University of California at Davis and a historian of chemical and biological warfare.

“We don’t have recipes yet to control them, but the potential is clearly foreseeable,” he said. “It would absolutely astonish me if we didn’t identify a range of pharmaceuticals that would be of great utility to interrogators.”

Recent research with the hormone oxytocin is especially provocative in this regard.

Produced by the brain, oxytocin is best known for stimulating uterine contraction during labor (when it is sometimes given under the trade name Pitocin), and for promoting milk “letdown” during breast feeding. Animal studies have shown it is also important in mate bonding and social attachment.

In a study published last year, Michael Kosfeld and Markus Heinrichs of the University of Zurich set up an experiment examining oxytocin’s effects on trust.

About 130 college students were randomly given a snort of oxytocin or placebo. Half were then designated “investors” and were given money. They could keep or transfer some or all of the money to a student “trustee,” whom they did not know and could not see.

The act of transferring money tripled its value, creating a big payoff for the trustee receiving it. That person could then keep it all or acknowledge the investor’s trust by returning some portion.

The investors getting oxytocin on average transferred more money than those getting placebos, and twice as many — 45 percent vs. 21 percent — showed maximal trust and transferred it all. Interestingly, oxytocin had no effect on how much money trustees shared back with their investors, suggesting that the hormone acted specifically to promote trust in situations where there was risk and uncertainty.

Paul J. Zak, a neuroscientist at Claremont Graduate University in California, helped supervise the Swiss experiment. He later went to a meeting called by DARPA and presented the findings. When he was finished, a military scientist asked him: “How do I use this stuff tomorrow?”

Zak said he dodged the question. He observed that classic interrogation techniques, in which one person acts as the “good cop” and creates a bond with the prisoner, probably already makes use of the brain’s own oxytocin. He added that, “we are just showing you the neurophysiology behind it.”

And that ended the conversation.

Addendum: DARPA also scares me.

Comments

  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 9, 2007

    The most often mentioned “truth serum” is sodium pentathol.

    Not so much in the religious sense of the word

    Possibly you meant the philosophical sense of the word, but religious belief has a large impact on belief in and interpretation of free will. You proably don’t want to go there.

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    January 9, 2007

    Well, the Flying Spaghetti Monster dictates that free will is only granted at the discretion of his noodly appendage anyway. So, guess its a moot point.

  3. #3 Roy
    January 9, 2007

    “Free will” is a pretty big can of worms for philosophy, too. Heh.

    To be honest, I’d never really considered that particular aspect- the psychological/emotional pressure of being forced to betray your own thoughts. It does raise questions about what kinds of cases would warrent the use of something like that. I mean, if they come up with a “real” truth serum, when would they be allowed to use it? Could you volunteer to take it if you were claiming you were innocent? Would they need a warrent? Maybe a warrent with specific lines of questioning?

  4. #4 darkman
    January 9, 2007

    There is evidence that ‘truth serums’ are effective, though not necessarily by directly making people willing to babble their innermost thoughts and feelings. The use of pharmacological agents to aid in obtaining the truch goes hand in hand with interrogation practices. Interrogation is the use of subtle (and not so subtle) psychological principles to get people to give up information that they would normally not be willing to part with. The key to the effectiveness if truth serums lies in the fact that the make people more succeptible to the suggestive properties of the interrogation process. For example, the best known truth serum is sodium pentathol. SP is a barbiturate anesthetic agent meaning that it’s pharmacological mechanism of action is through GABA receptors. Since GABA potentiation generally has a behavioral disinhibitory effect, the use of SP along with interrogation probably makes people more likely to give in to psychological pressures to give up protected information (making interrogation more effective).

    The mention of LSD in Good Shepherd was likely more just an interesting historical reference. Its long been known that the CIA experimented with LSD for a number of uses in the late 50′s and early 60′s (think of Ken Kesey’s experiences with CIA testing) from use in interrogation as seen in the movie to use as a chemical warfare agent (just imagine how grotesue a battle field might seem to a group of soldiers about an hour after they’ve been exposed to an aerosolized LSD-DMSO combination). None legitimately panned out (as far as we know) and it is likely that this time period was the only one when the CIA used something like LSD in a manner seen in the movie. They probably have much better stuff nowadays.

    As for legitimate use of ‘truth serums’, I’m not sure I believe there are any. In general, interrogation is a tool used specifically in sitiuations where there is no actual consent (POWs, criminal interrogation, etc). Other uses for ‘truth serums’, for example the accused consenting to their use to potentially exonerate themselves of some crime , are going to be confounded by the simple fact that these confessions are drug induced and potentially have the same failure rate and reasons of techniques such as the lie detector test. I don’t think they could ever be legitimately used without much controversy. and honestly, i’m very happy with this staying the way it is.

    just one last dig shelley, and i promise i’ll stop. i’m not sure that truth serums denigrate the concept free will either. Since interrogation is use of psychology to get people to comply to something they normally wouldn’t (telling the truth) the end result of interrogation, aided by drugs or not, is the subject ‘deciding’ to comply. Choosing to comply is an act of free will, these drugs and social psychology just make people more likely to freely make the decision that compliance is the correct thing. At the end of interrogation the subject is supposed to feel like their compliance was the correct choice and the most effective interrogation would leave the subject using their own freewill to make that decision. Is it ethical to make people more succeptible to suggestive psychology, nope, but are they actually lacking free will, i’m not so sure, i think it just makes their free will more pliable to social pressure. crappy as it is, i don’t think they’re the same.

  5. #5 Roy
    January 9, 2007

    As I read her question, I took it more along the lines of if there were really a “truth serum”- i.e. if there was a chemical that, when given, made it impossible for the individual to lie. In a case like that, where the individual would no longer be making the choice to tell the truth, but would, instead, be forced to do so, then it’s definitely in opposition to whatever form of free will one subscribes to.

    Further: it seems to me that using chemicals to alter the manner in which a person reasons does have an effect on that person’s “free will.” I suppose it depends on what you mean by “free will,” which is why it’s such a contentious issue. I’d argue that, for example, you’re imposing on any significant notion of free will if you hold a gun to someone’s head and order them to do X, Y, or Z. Sure, that person can choose not to follow your order, but you’ve substantially altered the playing field, and his choice is now under duress. Likewise, if you’re using a chemical to alter a person’s mental facilities in order to manipulate and coerce that person into reveiling information that s/he wouldn’t normally… that’s altering your victim’s will to keep the secret. Sure, s/he may still be able to choose not to tell the secret, but I question how free that person’s will to do so is, once you’re drugging them up.

  6. #6 knobody
    January 9, 2007

    i remember sodium pentathol. boy, that was fun stuff. i was 15 and having my tonsils out. before i was knocked out i remember babbling on about anything and everything. the medical-types in the room just ignored me and kept on talking amongst themselves. whatever topic they were talking about, i would pipe up and interject anything and everything i could think of that related. i don’t recall lying, but not because i couldn’t. it simply didn’t occur to me. if i had been asked to lie, i’m sure i would have belted out some doozies nonstop until the topic changed again. i just couldn’t shut up even if i had tried (whoopi goldberg in jumping jack flash did a pretty good impression of how i felt, except she was upright and could keep her eyes more focused). eventually they got bored with me and decided i needed more drugs. i don’t remember anything clearly after that until about 7 or 9 hours later.

    i’m pretty sure that anything i said at the time (and i said a lot) would go against the fifth amendment. pretty fun stuff at the time, but the sore throat afterwards sucked.

  7. #7 Brian
    January 10, 2007

    Well, you could discuss the effect of alcohol on free will… Who hasn’t told an inconvenient truth under its influence?

  8. #8 Roy
    January 10, 2007

    I plead the fifth, Brian.

    Seriously, though- sure, there are plenty of things that alter our ability to make informed, intentional choices. There’s still significant difference between my choosing to go out drinking, and then telling someone what I really think because I’ve had a few too many, and my being picked up by the feds and injected with a chemical against my will that forces me to answer questions I wouldn’t otherwise answer.

    To be perfectly honest, I don’t even believe in any strong sense of “free will” and I recognize that the second is… problematic.

  9. #9 jvarisco
    January 10, 2007

    This seems like it would actually be quite useful, for one very practical reason. Everyone convicted of a crime could be given the serum; thus it could be ascertained in nearly every case (except when the guilty party may be unaware of their guilt for some reason) whether someone is actually guilty. This would eliminate wrongful convictions, which would be a huge step forward for our criminal justice system. It might not be the most comforting thought, but in practical terms would do a lot of good. What does the government care about your little secrets, anyway?

  10. #10 gordo
    January 10, 2007

    Well, they’re now using truth serum to interrogate suspected murderers in India, so I guess it must work.

  11. #11 AJ
    January 11, 2007

    Interesting fact that gordo mentioned — the use of sodium pentathol for obtaining “confessions” is becoming increasingly commonplace in India, and is being peddled under the term “narco-analysis” — as some kind of cutting-edge scientific procedure. From this link “..narco analysis test is done by a team comprising of an anaesthesiologist, a psychiatrist, a clinical/ forensic psychologist, an audio-videographer, and supporting nursing staff. The forensic psychologist will prepare the report about the revelations, which will be accompanied by a compact disc of audio-video recordings. The strength of the revelations, if necessary, is further verified by subjecting the person to polygraph and brain mapping tests..”. The “brain-mapping” stuff is another story altogether. Public response so far has been muted, maybe even positive, because the authorities claim to have solved a few high-profile cases using these techniques. In a country where police routinely beat the suspects for confessions, and where the judicial system hardly moves, I wouldnt be surprised if people there think that the use of these techniques is actually a good thing.

  12. #12 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 12, 2007

    Someone told me *cough *cough about LSD and from what I can tell it’s far from truthful… fun yes .. truthful? That’s questionable.

    Maybe in a large enough dose and under interrogation it would work to help squeeze some truthful admissions from the subject.

  13. #13 chchats
    January 13, 2007

    Rev. BigDumbChimp: I’ve heard similar things; for example, LSD was mostly abandoned as a tool for psychoanalysis because it was difficult to separate pathology from hallucination.

    Interestingly, there is a similar problem with many torture techniques for the purpose of interrogation: it’s often difficult to separate truthful confessions from saying-anything-to-get-the-pain-to-stop. Both of these are detailed in the recent book “Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense” by Jonathan Moreno.

    BTW, I thought The Good Shepherd was incredibly boring. (wrong thread I know)

  14. #14 Al Fin
    January 13, 2007

    I always liked the “Mission Impossible” method, where they make the person think they had slept for twenty years and are just now waking up, so there’s obviously no problem with them talking about all those secrets–it was all so long ago . . .

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