Skip to main content

'Truth serum' won't reveal mind of James Holmes

By Arthur Caplan, Special to CNN
March 22, 2013 -- Updated 1436 GMT (2236 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Judge in Aurora shootings approved use of drugs for competency evaluation
  • Arthur Caplan: No drug can shed light on mindset of shooting suspect Holmes
  • He says "truth serum," or sodium pentothal, is used as anesthesia for surgeries
  • Caplan: Only Hollywood likes the idea of "truth serum," not scientists

Editor's note: Arthur Caplan is the Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty professor and director of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center.

(CNN) -- Back in the 1950s, Hollywood fell in love with the idea of truth serum. All manner of spies, murderers and other bad guys were given a needle containing sodium pentothal on the big screen and soon were babbling away uncontrollably as to their guilt or complicity with Red China or the Soviet Union.

As recently as 2004 in "Meet the Fockers," a former CIA agent played by Robert De Niro injects his would-be son-in-law, played by Ben Stiller, with the stuff to get the lowdown on his love life. Stiller's character confesses, in a foreshadowing of Arnold Schwarzenegger's amorous ways, to having had a child with his housekeeper, although whether he did or not is far from clear.

Harry Potter knew all about truth serum. Veritaserum was used on a variety of miscreants and by evildoers. It was so powerful and feared that its use was strictly controlled by the Ministry of Magic.

Arthur Caplan
Arthur Caplan

In reality, magical thinking is all it really is. There is no such thing as truth serum. But that news has apparently not reached Colorado. The judge in charge of the mass murder trial of James Holmes seems to think Hollywood was onto something with its fascination with truth serums.

He has approved the use of a "narcoanalytic interview" -- such as a "truth serum" like sodium pentothal -- as part of a competency evaluation to determine whether Holmes was legally insane at the time he allegedly went on a rampage in a theater in Aurora, Colorado. Holmes is charged with killing 12 people and injuring many more.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Sodium pentothal -- the original "truth serum" -- was discovered in 1936 by Ernest H. Volwiler and Donalee L. Tabern working in Chicago at Abbott Laboratories. They were trying to create an injectable drug for use in general anesthesia. Their discovery was a success and had a huge impact on surgery. Sodium pentothal is still used today to knock out patients before they are given another, longer-lasting anesthetic to keep them unconscious during surgery.

Sodium pentothal made surgery far less painful. It also has an interesting side effect. People under its influence lose their inhibitions and babble on about all sorts of things, leading to some amusing moments for surgical teams. This loss of inhibition gave a few researchers hope that the drug or something like it could be used to get the truth out of people in police stations, security interrogations or trials.

But outside of Hollywood, no drug passes muster as a potion capable of getting accurately at the truth. People do get uninhibited and talk more freely, but they don't necessarily stop lying or fantasizing. They also grow more compliant, tending to agree with those asking them leading questions.

There is no solid evidence that what is said under the influence of a "truth" drug correlates reliably with the truth. For the most part, people yammer away. If anything, they behave as if they were drunk rather than diligently affirming the sober truth.

There is no drug that is going to shed trustworthy light on Holmes' state of mind last year when, police say, he donned a gas mask as well as full body armor and grabbed a rifle, a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun and at least one .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol to launch a heinous attack. No drug can tell us what he was really thinking.

In giving permission to use drugs, the judge has opened the door to a line of defense in which Holmes' lawyers can argue that if drugged, he is being forced to testify against himself against his will.

As much as some might hope for a thing such as a truth serum, none exists. Whether Holmes was bad or mad when he allegedly caused so much misery to so many people will not get resolved by a technique beloved by Hollywood movie directors but not by scientists.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arthur Caplan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT