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The Truth About Truth Serum

Article #80 • Written by Alan Bellows

Popular culture makes gratuitous use of powerful lie-repelling agents known as Truth Serums. They are usually depicted as injected drugs which strongly inhibit a subject's ability to lie, causing him or her to mechanically recite the truth to an interviewer upon questioning.

Such drugs have been utilized by some of the three-letter government agencies in the not-so-distant past (CIA, FBI, DOD, KGB, etc.), particularly during the rampant paranoia of the Cold War. And in the aftermath of 9/11, there was some discussion on the idea of bringing them back into use for interrogation. But are these truth serums effective? Do they produce any useful results?

The short answer is, no. The long answer is "Noooooooooooo!" while running in slow-motion.

Many barbiturates fall under the "truth serum" category, including scopolamine, sodium amytal, and Sodium Pentothal. Scopolamine was tested in the 1950s as a truth serum in project MKULTRA, and is now infamous as a date-rape drug due to its tendency to cause retrograde amnesia (the inability to recall events prior to its administration). Sodium Pentothal is a drug which is commonly used in operating rooms as general anesthesia, though in recent years it has been largely replaced by better alternatives.

Another of the most common truth serums is ethyl alcohol, the same agent that is found in alcoholic beverages. As a truth serum, it is usually injected in a nearly pure form, but its effects are indistinguishable from those caused by consuming large amounts of alcohol orally. If you've ever been intoxicated, then you are personally familiar with the effects that truth serum has on the mind and body.

While a drunk person may be more likely to confess their secrets, they are not incapable of lying, nor will they necessarily share any information that is asked of them. All of these truth serums work in the same manner: They depress the central nervous system and interfere with judgment and higher cognitive function. A person in such a state tends to regurgitate a cocktail of information which is a blend of facts and fantasy, with many details exaggerated or omitted. In a word, unreliable.

In 1963 the Supreme Court ruled that a confession produced under the influence of truth serum was unconstitutionally coerced, and therefore inadmissible. After that, the use of such drugs fell rapidly from popularity in the U.S.. But truth serums may not be gone for good, as the Supreme Court asserted shortly after 9/11 that terrorism may require "heightened deference to the judgments of the political branches with respect to matters of national security."

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 22 December 2005. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows.
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41 Comments
Alan Bellows
Posted 22 December 2005 at 05:12 pm

As an aside, Sodium Pentothal is good for one other purpose besides extracting pseudo-truth and knocking out surgery patients: it is a a radioprotective agent, which minimizes the damaging effect of radiation on the body. If the drug is taken three to four hours before the exposure to radiation, it prolongs the life of body cells even if the dose of radiation was lethal.


chrisboyle001
Posted 22 December 2005 at 05:51 pm

^ that is really cool


Arcangel
Posted 22 December 2005 at 07:37 pm

Ahhh, so another chemical agent in the fight for protection against radiation poisoning, if you could get it. People living in close proximity to a nuclear power plant should already have Potassium iodide (KI) tablets in their first aid kits. Not so sure that they could get Sodium Pentothal as easy though. Just wondering how much of it you would take in order to survive and if that amount would end up knocking you out as a result?


TDavis
Posted 22 December 2005 at 08:15 pm

Hmmmm....I had heard that Sodium Pentothal was good for removing red wine stains from white table linen. Or maybe that was Carbon Tetrachloride....


Oax
Posted 22 December 2005 at 08:39 pm

If I'm the victim of radiation poisoning, I want to be knocked out.

For a long time.


Marius
Posted 23 December 2005 at 04:23 am

Hmm, a fascinating article today. This is one of those questions that hovered just below my mental threshold of actually addressing, but has always been there. Many moons ago, when getting my wisdom teeth out, I had a shot of sodium pentathol, but that's all I remember of it. I was on nitrous oxide already, and I felt the IV go in, I felt the pain of the pentathol, and then nothing. Ever since I've been skeptical of the 'truth serums', and now you have cleared that up. Thanks. :-)


yazheirx
Posted 23 December 2005 at 05:55 am

If I'm the victim of radiation poisoning, I want to be knocked out.

Technically, every time you get a sun burn you are a victim of radiation poisoning. At least your skin is.


The End
Posted 23 December 2005 at 07:20 am

Very Interesting as usual... keep up the good work.


Josh Harding
Posted 23 December 2005 at 09:17 am

Alan Bellows said: "As an aside, Sodium Pentothal is good for one other purpose besides extracting pseudo-truth and knocking out surgery patients: it is a a radioprotective agent, which minimizes the damaging effect of radiation on the body. If the drug is taken three to four hours before the exposure to radiation, it prolongs the life of body cells even if the dose of radiation was lethal."

The problem is how many of you are going to know in advance that you are going to get a mega dose of radiation?


Alan Bellows
Posted 23 December 2005 at 11:44 am

Josh Harding said: "The problem is how many of you are going to know in advance that you are going to get a mega dose of radiation?"

It might have helped the fire brigade at Chernobyl, and the men in submarine K-19 (though the drug isn't known to protect against badly affected Russian accents).


Josh Harding
Posted 23 December 2005 at 12:37 pm

Alan Bellows said: "It might have helped the fire brigade at Chernobyl, and the men in submarine K-19 (though the drug isn't known to protect against badly affected Russian accents)."

Yah , there is not much hope for bad russian accents...like Dolph Lundgren, Sean Connery, Ben Affleck, Harrison Ford, ad nauseum.


Bucky
Posted 23 December 2005 at 06:43 pm

I knew there was a reason I subscribed to this blog. Awesome information; thanks!

So Neo didn't really have to rescue Morpheus! He wouldn't have necessarily told Agent Smith the access codes to the Zion mainframe!


some_dutch_guy
Posted 23 December 2005 at 07:01 pm

I tried scopolamine once with a couple of friends. Yes, i did some stupid things in my life. It was way back in LSD age. We all had different experiences, none of them pleasant. It 'did' something with the memory and the subconcious and the perceptions. While i was used to psychedelic experiences, this was something quite different.

When working with my hands, one seemed close and the other seemed yards away. The scenery and surroundings "tried"to change. I tried to focus on what i thought was the "real" reality. I took the shortest way to my bed and slept it off.

One of my friends fell back in a memory, while traveling on a train he relived a concert and went to the traindriver to score some dope. It was in the seventies, in the Netherlands so he didn't get arrested.

Another one stripped himsels naked and crawled like a dog through his parent's house. He saw other dogs that were not there and reacted to them.

Yet another one was in a friend's house, went to the hall, fetched an umbrella, broke it like it were tranhces from a tree, started a fire with it and started telling about all things he done bad in his life, from the first cookie he stole. He went on for hours.

So i guess it works sometimes in some circumstances with some persons, but it certainly is not reliable.


JustAnotherName
Posted 25 December 2005 at 06:28 am

THE TRUTH!! YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!

I hope no one already posted that.

Oh! And I am right in the "Safe Zone" of Limerick Nuclear Plant. People will be flocking to MY area. And I will be outta here in 20 minutes; South or South West or West. Depending on which way the wind currents are blowing.

I think I will pick up some of those "Anti-Radiation" pills at the Drug Store next time I see them. Watch me have a hidious allergic reaction to them.


Tapetum
Posted 02 January 2006 at 11:50 pm

Just as well we have no truth drugs worth the name.

Lois McMaster-Bujold's Vorkosigan series has a truth drug that really works called fast-penta. As she goes into at several times in several stories, it's a far cry from the wonder many people would imagine such a thing to be. For one, you have to get the right person. For another, you have to ask the right questions in the right way. For a third, you have to interpret the answers correctly. Then, to complicate all this, the effect on the person so drugged afterwards is something of a mind-rape. Not that their mental faculties are affected, but rather that to be forced to regurgitate everything they know willing or not is an incredibly invasive thing. All of these are legitimate problems that would occur were we to have an actual truth drug.

So I'm just as glad things stand as they are.


anna k
Posted 13 June 2006 at 08:50 pm

i prefer the jk rowling version...

but thank you, i did wonder if there was anything to the truthy rumor.


kbwoods
Posted 28 July 2006 at 05:19 am

yazheirx said: "If I'm the victim of radiation poisoning, I want to be knocked out.

Technically, every time you get a sun burn you are a victim of radiation poisoning. At least your skin is."

Right! Sunshine is like Chernobyl, and since sodium pentothal apparently has a similar effect as alcohol, we should all now go to the beach have some daiquiris.


solitas
Posted 30 August 2006 at 07:59 pm

>> If you've ever been intoxicated, then you are personally familiar with the effects that truth serum has on the mind and body.

[insert gratuitous mel gibson slam here]


KeithLDick
Posted 31 August 2006 at 02:50 am

"But are these truth serums effective? Do they produce any useful results?
"

Ummm, Ummm, Doe's HYPNOTISING people really work???...

Anyone here can testifiy that it does????...


Crispy
Posted 31 August 2006 at 03:34 am

Bucky said: "So Neo didn't really have to rescue Morpheus! He wouldn't have necessarily told Agent Smith the access codes to the Zion mainframe!"

Ah, but it wasn't a truth serum as such... it was a drug to break down his mental defences so that it would be easier to "hack into his mind". Agent Smith wasn't interrogating Morpheus, he was taking the information by force.

KeithLDick said: "Ummm, Ummm, Doe's HYPNOTISING people really work???…

Anyone here can testifiy that it does????…"

Despite what popular culture would have you believe, hypnotism requires the active consent and participation of the person being hypnotised. You can't use it to coerce someone to do something that they don't want to do, so it's not very useful for interrogation. It just induces a trance state, similar to meditation but with a more direct purpose.

I believe the point of hypnotism is basically to imprint conscious thoughts/desires onto the subconscious. This makes it useful for things like quitting smoking (but the person has to consciously want to quit or it won't work).


HarleyHetz
Posted 31 August 2006 at 05:09 am


I believe the point of hypnotism is basically to imprint conscious thoughts/desires onto the subconscious. This makes it useful for things like quitting smoking (but the person has to consciously want to quit or it won't work)."

And if you REALLY consciously want to quit, you don't truly need the hypnotism...so it's kind of an oxymoron!! ;o)


duffbeer703
Posted 31 August 2006 at 09:09 am

People misunderstand how interrogations work. The whole point of using drugs in an interrogation is to give the interrogator an edge over the victim/prisoner. Getting someone into a drunken or disorientated state makes it easier to trick and cajole, and can be used to extract secondary information that gives you leverage over the person later on.

So you may not get someone to loosen up about the secrets that you want to find out about -- but you may be able to get the person to loosen up about personal weaknesses.. childhood, sexual history, personal problems, medical problems, etc. Those weaknesses are exploited to extract more information.


schuylercat
Posted 31 August 2006 at 10:16 am

Duff - that's what I was thinking.

"Truth" is irrelevant in many interrogatory situations. "When will the allies attack the beaches of France?" or "Where is Osama Bin Laden?" are "leader" question which starts things at the top, then an interrogator might work down the ladder, seeking other, more realistic, information. The information gathered in interrogations is never expected to be accurate, timely, or carved in stone. It's all meant to form a larger picture of a situation, nothing but a small part of a greater investigation. Give a terrorism suspect a drug and ask a question like "when will the next attack take place?" and rely on that answer? Nope. Now, give twenty five terrorism suspects the same drug and ask that question. Ask the question of others without the drug. Look for a trend. That's the ticket, and the way I understand they were used.

BTW - great article, Alan! I liked the bit about ethyl alcohol and wondered if an interrogation would go like this:

GMAN: "Talk, you terrorist scum! We gave you alcohol!"
SUSPECT: "I really love you, man!!!"
GMAN: "Where are the others?"
SUSPECT: "I don't know! I really love you man!!!"
GMAN: "When will the next bad thing happen?"
SUSPECT: "Wow, man!!! I really love you man!!!"

Sounds like a bit for a SNL skit...

These were awesome responses, by the way - in my younger days in the '70's I was offered Scopolamine and I chickened out (glad I did). I was unaware Pentothal was a prophylactic against radiation - that's cool. Off to study...


Shandooga
Posted 31 August 2006 at 12:00 pm

Whew! for a second there this paragraph had me worried

the Supreme Court asserted shortly after 9/11 that terrorism may require "heightened deference to the judgments of the political branches with respect to matters of national security."

But then I realized that the current administration has no need for truth. That's a relief...


drewd
Posted 31 August 2006 at 12:27 pm

Shandooga, you spelled http://www.damninteresting.com wrong - you meant to type http://www.slashdot.org, I think.


Drakvil
Posted 31 August 2006 at 11:12 pm

Josh Harding said: "The problem is how many of you are going to know in advance that you are going to get a mega dose of radiation?"

True... I sometimes don't have that much advance notice of when I need to hop into my Ford Nucleon and head off to the store!

Would it be considered a DUI if you were on truth serum? I wonder what the field sobriety test would be like?

Officer: Are you on truth serum?
Me: I don't want to tell you, but yes I am.


plowshare
Posted 11 September 2006 at 06:31 am

Another popular movie myth I'd like to see explored is that of silencers on pistols. Just how much does a silencer mute the report of a pistol?
I read a short piece on this years ago which said that the report is still very loud, but I can't remember where.


Sr.Spielberg
Posted 17 September 2006 at 05:50 pm

I just stumbled into this site today and feel glad to have found so much interesting information.
The failings of truth serums have been known for decades. Real interrogation is a much more unpleasant process. Interestingly the common view that physical torture is optimal is incorrect. It is hard to interrogate someone who is unconscious. By far the most successful techniques are altering the victims mental state not by pain but by giving them a distorted view of the world. This may be done by overloading their senses with noise or light. On others putting them into real solitary confinement (pitch black, no noise, not even a breeze to give any stimulation, restrained and unable to move) will give the best results. All of this is very well known - the CIA (and almost all covert agencies of all countries ) have experimented by trying different interrogation methods and then using the ones that work. This is still occuring - look at Guantanamo. I can't pity terrorists but may, occasionally, feel sorry for them.


coppereagle
Posted 20 September 2006 at 04:01 pm

Why don't hospitals conducting radiation therapy administer this drug to CANCER patients !?? Would it be benneficial for other X-rays and so fourth ?


groover000
Posted 21 September 2006 at 12:35 pm

plowshare said: "Another popular movie myth I'd like to see explored is that of silencers on pistols. Just how much does a silencer mute the report of a pistol?

I read a short piece on this years ago which said that the report is still very loud, but I can't remember where."

It all depends on the type and caliber of the weapon as this Wikipedia article states:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suppressor


7HS
Posted 30 September 2006 at 11:44 pm

coppereagle said: "Why don't hospitals conducting radiation therapy administer this drug to CANCER patients !?? Would it be benneficial for other X-rays and so fourth ?"

Because it would have the exact same cell-preserving effect on the cancerous cells as the rest of the body, perhaps?

As for X-rays, it's simply not worth the expense when a lead apron is nearly as effective.


Tink
Posted 16 November 2006 at 01:44 am

Sr.Spielberg said: "I just stumbled into this site today and feel glad to have found so much interesting information.... This is still occuring - look at Guantanamo. I can't pity terrorists but may, occasionally, feel sorry for them."

Thanks for joining us! Btw, love your books. LOL ;-P


King Randall
Posted 31 December 2006 at 05:35 am

Has anyone supposed what might be used as an effective truth-telling agent? I submit the "vice-grip and testicles" approach. Yeah yeah, it's "torture". But so is The View, and dumb commercials, and television in general, yet nobody's writing to their Congressmen about THAT. I'll leave that thought on the table right over there, if anyone wants it.


Grib
Posted 11 January 2007 at 12:37 am

"If you've ever been intoxicated, then you are personally familiar with the effects that truth serum has on the mind and body. "

... uh? You mean like dancing half naked on the bar?


jstephens
Posted 20 February 2008 at 02:31 pm

Alan Bellows said: "It might have helped the fire brigade at Chernobyl, and the men in submarine K-19 (though the drug isn't known to protect against badly affected Russian accents)."

I heard that the fire crew, and some others, were spared some of the harshness of the radiation because they were very intoxicated by alcohol (it's documented that they survived). Something to the effect of potentially fatal doses not being fatal because the alcohol effectively counteracted, or stunted, what was happening to their cells because of the radiation.


Q4M
Posted 14 May 2011 at 09:47 am

Coppereagle said: “Why don’t hospitals conducting radiation therapy administer this drug to CANCER patients !?? Would it be benneficial for other X-rays and so fourth ?”

7Hs stated: "Because it would have the exact same cell-preserving effect on the cancerous cells as the rest of the body, perhaps?"

This is a true assumtion...The effects of the Sodium Pentathol would counteract the efforts of the radiation therapy. The radiation is meant to kill the cancer cells in the affected tissues. If a preserving agent ie: Sodium Pentathol were introduced as a variable, the two chemicals would essentially be fighting for effectiveness, thereby weakening the SP; diluting it, if you will. The medical practice of using radiation is to target the cancer, kill it quickly and cease the treatment as soon as possible. There are a number of side effects, damaging to the immune system and the production of new cell life, during the radiation treatment phase. However, once treatment is ceased, the regenerative properties of the cellular tissues return to normal(lacking the cancerous, mutated cells) and the immune system begins to restore it's necessary levels of functionality.


mrsmoriarty_001
Posted 03 June 2011 at 02:21 pm

I think they should give Casey Anthony truth serum and find out the truth once and for all..........


Dawnatilla
Posted 19 May 2013 at 10:13 pm

to the author:How the F*** are you going to drop the name MK Ultra like its as common as saying..oh, I don't know.. "poor journalism"...without letting people know what the f***is up with it? half assed info...or disinfo..


Dennis
Posted 30 December 2013 at 04:22 pm

Back in 1987 I decided to have a vasectomy since I already had 2 children from a previous marriage but had been remarried for a couple of years. During the out-patient operation the doctor and his assistant allowed my wife to stay in the room during the procedure. He injected me with Sodium Pentothal. After I was totally out he laughingly told my wife that if she ever wanted to ask me a question and be guaranteed to get an honest answer she should ask me then. He told her that Sodium Pentothal was a truth serum. After the operation she told me what he said. I didn't think it was too funny because 'IF' I was the type to mess around that would have been a terrible time for my wife to find out. Imagine, the doctor is cutting me in a very private area and the scorned wife casually walks over and bumps the doctor's scalpel and I could have been talking in a much higher voice after that!! :)
In all seriousness, I think 'some form' of the truth serum should be used in murder cases. I understand the 5th amendment and tales of inaccuracies but prisons are full of murderers who repeatedly bog down courts with appeals and take up space in prisons. There has to be a better way,


jkoch
Posted 16 July 2014 at 12:44 pm

Scopalomine seemed to be a favorite drug of the author Allistaire McClain. He used it in 2 of his best stories: "Where Eagles Dare" and "The Guns of Navarone", when the Germans were interrogating a prisoner in WWII.


oscar
Posted 24 August 2014 at 03:11 am

Truth serums can work very well. Other factors might help also.
Comment above re hypnotism, bullshit if you think a person cant be forced to do shit.
Obviously the knowhow and other dirty tricks would be protected by these naysayers, peeps who wouldnt give up their evil sex parties..
Again, good thing re certain departments of police getting their shit together to finally be able to get these unsavory people.


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