In Medieval times, "ordeals of fire and water" were used in an effort to determine if a person was lying or telling the truth. In our own time, "truth serums" and "lie detector" machines have been used for the same purpose. However, in 1963, the United States Supreme Court decided that a truth serum-induced confession was unconstitutionally coerced. More recently, state courts have found truth serum-induced testimony to be scientifically unreliable and inadmissible.
August Piper, Jr., M.D. discussed the problems of the "truth serum" sodium amytal in a 1994 FMSF Newsletter column, reproduced below. See also: Piper, A. "'Truth serum' and 'recovered memories' of sexual abuse: A review of the evidence," Journal of Psychiatry & Law/Winter, 193, pages 447-471.
"TRUTH SERUM" AND "WHAT REALLY HAPPENED" by August Piper Jr., M.D. Pontius Pilate once asked, "What is truth?" Two thousand years later, plaintiff and defendant, accuser and accused, unfold their versions of truth. In our courtrooms, Pilate's question echoes. A reader of this newsletter inquires: I have heard that sodium Amytal is a truth drug. What does that mean? My lawyer says that taking the drug might help my lawsuit, by helping me and my doctor decide what really happened to me when I was a child. The Amytal interview has been known to American physicians for about half a century. Amytal is the trade name of a drug belonging to the same family as Nembutal, Seconal, and Pentothal. Its generic name is amobarbital (generic names are not capitalized). It is a barbiturate, which means that sufficiently-large doses cause drowsiness and sleep. During an Amytal interview, the physician administers small amounts of the drug, by vein, every few minutes. The procedure usually takes about an hour. The patient is drowsy and slurred of speech, but awake -- the so-called "twilight state" for the duration of the interview. Intravenous Amytal causes a feeling of relaxation, warmth, and closeness to the interviewer; while in this state, the patient is questioned. Other intravenous drugs, like Valium or Ativan, are sometimes used in this kind of procedure. For our purposes, these medicines should be considered essentially identical to IV Amytal, because they produce these same effects on the patient. The amobarbital interview was very popular during the 1930's and 1940's, though at that time it was not usually performed to verify or recover forgotten memories. Rather, doctors employed the procedure to examine the unconscious, or to do psychotherapy (for example, to treat "shell shock"). The dominant theory then, held by many physicians, was that people under Amytal could not possibly lie. This theory was reflected in the colorful name "truth serum" given to the drug. One characteristic of good science is a sincere attempt to disprove its own theories. This principle was applied to the belief that people always tell the truth under Amytal -- that is, patients were tested to see if they could tell falsehoods during Amytal interviews. They could. During such interviews, could people deliberately attempt to deceive an interviewer? They could. Could they report false or exaggerated symptoms of psychological disorders? Again, they could. Withhold information? Yes. In time, other studies revealed more information. They showed that during Amytal administration, patients often demonstrate a distorted sense of time, show memory disturbances, and have difficulty evaluating and selecting thoughts. In addition, under Amytal, patients' claims about details of their histories--events, places, names, dates -- are untrustworthy. Further, these investigations noted that the drug also makes patients vulnerable to either accidental or deliberate suggestions from the interviewer. Finally, and most importantly, patients under Amytal fail to reliably discriminate between reality and fantasy. Now, I bet some readers are thinking: "Hmm. Slurred speech, drowsiness, a feeling of warmth, distorted memory, altered time-sense. Sounds familiar." Cynics would say that those things happen after someone has had "a few too many." And in this case, they would be exactly right: intravenous Amytal creates a state similar to acute alcohol intoxication. So. Having said all that, will I finally answer the reader's question? Courts have long been intensely skeptical of any efforts to "enhance" or "refresh" the memories of participants in trials. The above discussion shows why. The judiciary worries about interviewers contaminating the memories of those they interview, and about the ability of people to misrepresent truth while under Amytal. Then there is the matter of reliability of information obtained from someone who is acutely intoxicated. Thoughtful clinicians, supporting these concerns of the courts, have warned that memories retrieved in an Amytal-induced trance are likely to contain a combination of fact and fantasy, in a mixture that cannot be accurately determined without external verification. This point about external verification is important. It means that statements made under Amytal must be reliably confirmed. If they are not, they cannot be considered more truthful than any other statements. In summary, there's no such thing as "truth serum," and the Amytal interview won't help anybody decide what really happened in your childhood. Waste not your money, dear reader! August Piper Jr. M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in Seattle, Washington. He is a member of the FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board. He has written a chapter in a forthcoming book (Multiple Personality Disorder: Critical Issues and Controversies), as well as several articles on MPD.