MadSci Network: Neuroscience

Re: What is Truth Serum?

Date: Mon Feb 2 11:29:27 1998
Posted By: Joe Simpson, MadSci Admin
Area of science: Neuroscience
ID: 886435525.Ns

Dear Mr. Peterson,

  The answer to your question is quite simple: there is no such thing as truth 
  Now the elaboration: what is commonly known as "truth serum" is actually a
ultra-short-acting barbiturate called sodium amytal.  This drug can induce
a "twilight" state between waking and unconsciousness, in which it was once 
thought that people would be more suggestible and less able to resist 
questioning.  In fact, it doesn't work very well.  It's basically the same idea
as getting your friend drunk to get him or her to tell you things he or she 
ordinarily wouldn't say.  Needless to say, this is a far cry from a "truth 
serum."  It has been used in combination with hypnosis, another method of 
very dubious effectiveness.  In fact, there is now a lot of evidence that 
some people can be made to "remember" things that never happened with hypnosis. 
Sodium amytal was tested by the CIA (along with many other drugs) in the 1950s 
and 1960s, but I think it is safe to say that it is not used much for the 
purpose of eliciting information anymore, at least not by legitimate 
   Like the polygraph or "lie detector," another marginally effective 
investigative tool that has been made far too much of in fiction, truth serum is 
really not a particularly useful way to get to the bottom of a suspect's story, 
so law enforcement uses more ordinary means, such as "good cop, bad cop," 
bluffing (i.e. telling the suspect that you know more than you really do), 
negotiating, etc. to try to convince a suspect to cough up the truth.

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