Do Truth Serums Really Exist? Experts Weigh In


| LAST UPDATE 03/09/2023

By Stanley Wickens
Truth Serum Michael Mosley
BBC via YouTube

Have you ever heard of truth serums? It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but these mind-altering drugs have been around since the Roman Empire. The idea behind them is to make someone incapable of lying, but the reality is much more complex than that. As Mark Twain once said, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."

One example of a truth serum is sodium thiopental. It works by slowing down the speed at which your body sends messages from your spinal cord to your brain. As a result, it's more difficult to perform high-functioning tasks such as concentrating on a single activity like walking a straight line or even lying. It's this concentration you need to think up a lie that truth serum removes. If you're not a compulsive liar, then it's likely more difficult for you to lie than tell the truth. However, they do not completely remove our ability to lie. In fact, some truth serums may even make us say things that please others, regardless of whether they are true or not. That's why they are illegal under certain circumstances, including during interrogation. Despite this, some US courts have allowed their use in special cases where determining the truth is crucial. For example, a judge allowed the use of sodium pentothal to determine if a suspect in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting was truly insane.

Oxytocin IV Bag medicine
Colin via Wikimedia Commons
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But what about the future? Could we be on the verge of a new type of truth-telling drug? According to Mark Wheelis from UC Davis, it's possible. As we learn more about how our brains work and discover new drugs, we could potentially manipulate neural circuits that govern states like fear and anxiety. One drug that has already been examined for its trust-promoting effects is oxytocin. Known as Pitocin to women in labor, this drug has been shown to increase trust in some studies. While it's still too early to tell if oxytocin or any other drug can truly enhance truth-telling capabilities, it's an intriguing possibility.

So while truth serums may not be as magical as they seem in movies and TV shows, they do have some interesting effects on our cognitive functions. Whether or not we'll see a true "truth serum" in the future remains to be seen. But as Mark Twain said: "Always tell the truth - it's easier to remember."

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