Skip to main content

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

By Arthur Caplan, Special to CNN
updated 10:36 AM EDT, Fri March 22, 2013
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
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT