Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The Dark History of Truth Serum

As our civil liberties are eroded under the guise a war on terror and men without rights are kept in secret prisons and sent to foreign jails for abuse, I worry that truth serums will once again become a staple of law enforcement and intelligence. They do not allow interrogators to extract reliable information, but neither does torture — and yet the current administration is not opposed to those brutal methods.

I am not alone. Last year, The Washington Post published a fantastic article on this alarming topic. Even better, Alison Winter wrote a comprehensive history of truth serums that appeared in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine two years ago.

It began with the so-called “zombie drug” scopolamine. In the 1920s, Robert House, a doctor from Texas, branded the versatile alkaloid as a means to extract information. In the next decade, barbituates including sodium amytal and sodium pentothal were introduced.

It didn’t take long for reasonable people to realize that truth serum would produce inaccurate or inconsistent results during interrogations, and yet former CIA officials and Indian judicial officials take them seriously. Perhaps they read too many Dick Tracy comics as kids.


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  1. #1 Tom B
    October 23, 2007

    The Administration is astoundingly free from any sense that they really have NO CLUE of what they are talking about most of the time. The other day, Bush said Iran had to be prevented from learning how the make the Bomb. Of course, that information has been widely available for decades; the hard part is purifying the Uranium. The other thing is this whole corn to ethanol thing; you use more energy than you “make”.

  2. #2 Ktesibios
    October 23, 2007

    Deathbed statements have been excluded from evidence because the victim had been given morphine for pain.

    But for the Bushies, the issue isn’t about doing anything rational or effective about investigating terrorism. What it’s really about is using idiot cruelty to convince themselves that they’re Real Men.

  3. #3 Ichthyic
    October 23, 2007

    Is it a coincidence that this comes on the heels of your post on LSD, since the CIA and US military both investigated using it as a form of “truth serum” in the late 50’s/early 60’s?

    Ironically, note that both agencies abandoned using LSD in this fashion as being far too unreliable.

    I wonder if the recent resurgence of interest in “truth serums” will see another group learning to tune in, turn on, and drop out?

  4. #4 Rev. Dr. Incitatus
    October 24, 2007

    Read “The Men Who Stare At Goats” by John Ronson. When you see the kind of zany, far-out projects the CIA gets interested in, you’ll realise that nothing is too weird and esoteric for those The Company.

    That said, if it ever came down to truth serum, electrified nipple clamps, or a 24 hour looped track of Celine Dion’s greatest hits, I’ll take the truth serum. And if they’re all out of that, then I guess I’ll go with the nipple clamps.

  5. #5 Drugmonkey
    October 24, 2007

    Interestingly we have the only good LD50 estimate for MDMA in larger mammals from a 50s military study on mescaline analogs which was declassified and published much later (Hardman et al, 1973). Given the subjective properties of MDMA as we now understand them it is a bit mystifying why this wasn’t the compound of preference to study for possible “truth serum” properties. Empathy with the interrogator’s needs and all that…

    In contrast it just doesn’t seem like LSD would be so obviously applicable to the “truth serum” situation.

  6. #6 Abby Normal
    October 25, 2007

    I’ll back-up what Drugmonkey said about MDMA. In my younger, more foolish days, I experimented with a lot of different drugs, including ecstasy. Now there’s a drug that made me want to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I felt completely safe and at peace, as well as love for the person I was with. I would pour out my deepest, darkest secrets without even being asked. Not good.

    LSD, on the other hand, had the opposite effect. I’d come up with the most outrageous stuff and it would sound perfectly plausible in my head. So I’d say it. Also not good.

    If the government is looking to start doing truth serum experiments again, MDMA looks like a good starting point. Of course I won’t be the one to tell them… unless of course they read this blog. But really, what are the chances?

  7. #7 darkman
    October 25, 2007

    but the government can’t do research on mdma… it is a schedule I compound, with no possible medical value in the slightest. ever.

  8. #8 Drugmonkey
    October 25, 2007

    darkman this is the worst version of the conspiracy thing i’ve ever heard. keep up with the times man! There’s Phase II trials underway for “possible medical value”. for the lazy, maps has a podcast available. if you want to get the discussion rolling (ha) you gotta do better than this tired old snark…

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