Category Archives: Truth serum

Do ‘Truth Serums’ Work?

truthserumOn NPR today (11 April), a segment on “the truth behind truth serums”:

Lawyers of alleged al-Qaida operative Jose Padilla have argued that he should not be tried because of questionable interrogation techniques used on him, including the use of truth serums.

Alex Chadwick talks with Dr. Ronald Miller, chair of the anesthesia and perioperative care department at the University of California San Francisco, about the truth behind truth serums.

You can listen to the segment via this link.

Photo credit: misocrazy, Creative Commons License

The history of US Government use of Truth Serums

Lawyers for terror suspect Jose Padilla allege that whilst he was in US government custody he was subjected to “hooding, stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the administration of ‘truth serums’. ” (New York Times, 22 Feb). Jeff Stein at Congressional Quarterly (23 Feb) asked the Pentagon, CIA, Navy and FBI about the use of truth serums:

The government refuses to say what is almost certainly true: that interrogators did not, in fact, use any kind of so-called “truth serum” on Padilla.

Although a spokesman for the Defense Secretary, the Navy and the CIA would not comment on the record, “the FBI did not hesitate to answer the question”:

“The FBI would neither use, condone nor be partner to the use of any such tactic,” public affairs unit chief Rich Kolko responded within minutes of an e-mailed inquiry. Indeed, the FBI had objected to the harsh methods that CIA and Defense Department interrogators were using on Padilla and other detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere.

The irony of the government’s silence on truth serums — to me anyway — is that nobody I talked to outside of Padilla’s camp believes U.S. interrogators employed drugs to loosen his tongue. […] Why? The first reason is that the drugs normally associated with the term “truth serum” aren’t likely to work.

In the rest of the article, Stein discusses the chequered and murky history of government use of truth serums.

Hat tip to the Anti-Polygraph Blog for the link.

More on truth serums

Shelley at the neuroscience blog Retrospectacle mused on truth serums last week (9 Jan):

Let’s 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?

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. […]

There’s an interesting conversation going on in the comments to Shelley’s post, including a discussion of how truth serums work (or don’t work) and the ethics of using them for criminal investigations, as the Indian police are doing.

Truth serums and “brain fingerprinting” used in Indian serial killer case

A serial killing case in India has caused quite a stir in recent weeks, with suspicions that the murders are linked to human organ trafficking operations and allegations of police incompetence in investigating the disappearances of the children. The Observer (UK, 7 Jan) explains:

Forty or more people, ranging from a boy aged 10 months to a 32-year-old mother of three, may have fallen victim to two of India’s most prolific serial killers as the authorities revealed their suspicion that murders may have been carried out to harvest body parts such as kidneys, livers and kneecaps.

[…] Yesterday, as police fought to control further riots by angry locals, the leader of India’s ruling coalition, Sonia Gandhi, made a surprise visit to the scene of the crime and harshly criticised the local police handling of the investigation. Responsibility for it has now been handed over to India’s top federal investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation.

In the last week, six police officers have been suspended after it emerged that Pandher, the prime suspect in the case, was arrested 13 months ago following a series of complaints from local residents in the slum bordering his house who suspected his involvement in the disappearance of their children. But the suspect walked out of the police station the same night.

Two men have been arrested in the case, and CNN-IBN News (5 Jan) explains what lies in store:

The Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, is currently conducting a narco-analysis test on the two accused in the Nithari serial killings case – Moninder Singh Pandher and Surinder.

[…] An anesthetist, a forensic expert and two psychologists. All of them are being given a comprehensive briefing by the Noida Police as to the questions that need to be posed to the accused once the truth serum has been administered.

[…] Assistant Director, FSL, Gandhinagar, V H Patel, “We inject drugs into a person, which makes his conscious mind relax. It is under the influence of these drugs that a person begins to speak out the things that he would normally try to hide.”

The chemical injected during the test is sodium pentathol, which is popularly known as the truth serum, for obvious reasons. […] The effect of the drug makes the person semi conscious, restricting their ability to manipulate answers or use their imagination.

In addition to the narco-analysis test, the Nithari accused will have to undergo a Brain Finger Printing Test and a Lie Detection or Polygraph Test.

[…] Says an FSL official, Namrata Khopkar, “Once the sensors are placed, and we show pictures to the accused and make them hear things. The way one’s brain reacts to these sounds can establish a lot of things.”

Both the use of sodium pentathol and “brain fingerprinting” techniques are highly controversial. Previous Deception Blog posts on ‘truth serums’ can be found here, and previous coverage of the use of brain scans by the Indian police can be found here and here.

Some Believe ‘Truth Serums’ Will Come Back

But the Washington Post (20 Nov) finds no evidence that anyone anywhere is seriously working on developing such techniques.

Is there something you can give a person that will make him tell the truth? […] the answer appears to be: No. There is no pharmaceutical compound today whose proven effect is the consistent or predictable enhancement of truth-telling.

[…Research psychologist Gordon H. Barland] spent 14 years working at the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute. While psychopharmacology was not his specialty, trying to catch liars was. “I would have expected that if there was some sort of truth drug in general use I would have heard rumors of it. I never did,” said Barland, who retired in 2000 and now lives in Utah. He further doubts that the government would again engage in such experiments[…]

[…] Another psychologist who spent 20 years in military research said he also “never heard anything like that or knew of anyone who was doing that work.”

[…] Some doubt the practicality of running, or keeping secret, such a research agenda [to develop truth serums]. “I can’t imagine it,” said Tara O’Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

… and so on…

Is alcohol a truth serum?

In vino veritas? wonders the Indianapolis Star (28 Aug):

Mel Gibson’s recent arrest for suspected drunken driving and his reportedly belligerent, anti-Semitic behavior toward police revive an old question — do people show their true colors when they’re under the influence?

Alcohol researchers and treatment experts say there is no simple answer. “You become more impulsive with the things you might say or do under the influence of alcohol,” says Julia Chester, assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. That’s because, say Chester and others, alcohol has a “disinhibitory” influence on behaviors that are controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain.

The Truth About Truth Serum

… from Damn Interesting (30 August):

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.

[…] 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.

Nice. Read the whole thing.

Brain scans used in trial in India

Via OmniBrain (28 March 06), a rather troubling report that “brain scans” have been used in the trial of an alleged rapist in India.

The results of the brain-mapping and polygraph (lie-detector) tests conducted on rape accused Abhishek Kasliwal have come out in favour of the prosecution. The Mumbai Police had conducted the tests on March 19 at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Bangalore.

Sadly, no further details are available, but OmniBrain author J. Stephen Higgins is on the case. Keep an eye on the comments there to see how far he gets.

UPDATE (3 April)

Sandra at Neurofuture is also on the case, and has posted some more detail and links. One link in particular is illuminating, revealing that the Indian police use the polygraph, EEG and sodium pentathol. [Which is apparently fine, because:

“Narcoanalysis is a very scientific and a humane approach in dealing with an accused’s psychological expressions, definitely better than third degree treatment to extract truth from an accused,” affirms Dr Malini.

Well, definitely better that the ‘third degree’ to be sure. However, here’s Wikipedia on the topic:

While fictional accounts of intelligence interrogation gives these drugs near magical abilities, information obtained by publicly-disclosed truth drugs has been shown to be highly unreliable, with subjects apparently freely mixing fact and fantasy. Much of the claimed effect relies on the belief of the subject that they cannot tell a lie while under the influence of the drug.]

I digress. According to the 2004 Deccan Herald article that Sandra found, “EEG ” appears to refer to Larry Farwell’s controversial Brain Fingerprinting Technique. I might come back to that when I have more time. Meanwhile, keep up to speed with Sandra’s detective work via del.icio.us.