The Truth About Truth Serum
It doesn’t actually exist, but plenty of drugs are purported to ferret out the facts. These methods, sometimes used in law enforcement, raise scientific and ethical questions.
By Cody CottierOct 2, 2021 10:00 PM
truth serum brain medication drops
Law enforcement officials have long used drugs like barbiturates to interrogate suspects. (Credit: Valery Brozhinsky/Shutterstock)
Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
The ability to separate truths from falsehoods has long evaded humanity: We’re prone to lying when it behooves us, and we do a poor job of recognizing when we’re the ones being lied to. Even police officers and other specialists trained in the detection of deceit fall short about as often as the average person.
One sought-after solution is the fabled “truth serum,” a generic term for any drug that renders its recipient incapable of telling a lie. Currently, no such drug exists — that is, none that consistently and predictably induce truth-telling. Nevertheless, this power has been attributed to a host of concoctions in the past century. These claims have fueled debate over their ethics and legality, as well as the mechanisms behind memory itself.
The Origins of Truth Serum
People have extracted information from one other via psychoactive substances since at least the Roman era. The first technique probably relied on plain old alcohol. People have reaffirmed the accuracy of the Latin phrase “in vino veritas” — in wine, there is truth — over the centuries by many a drunken slip of the tongue. The modern fascination with truth serums, however, began in the early 20th century.