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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT