“His mind is yours. What do you want from him?” Number 14

The Truth about Truth Serum


In 1915 American obstetrician Robert House chanced upon an interesting discovery, which would have far-reaching consequences. He noted that women who were given the drug scopolamine for pain relief in childbirth, could answer questions accurately even when in a state of what was termed, ‘twilight sleep’. An unfortunate side effect was the loss of memory of the actual birth itself.  House was also aware that his patients were often exceedingly candid in their remarks. To those in the law, this information was of immense interest. It could be a new crime-fighting weapon. Its first use in criminology was when tested in Dallas County Jail in 1922. Its potential was not lost either on those in the espionage business.


During World War Two the US Office of Strategic Services, (OSS) experimented not only with the use of scopolamine, but also mescaline and marijuana. However, there were mixed and inconclusive results. With the Cold War developing from shortly after the conclusion of World War 2, there were fears on both sides of the Iron Curtain that a reliable truth serum might be discovered by the opposition and employed. The search for that so-called ‘Holy Grail’ accelerated.


During the early period of the Cold War, particularly with the communist brainwashing techniques employed during the 1950-3 Korean War, it was suspected they had indeed perfected a drug, a potion, a technique that would enable minds to be controlled. This fear paralysed the CIA. Although this threat was exaggerated, it tapped into the cultural consciousness and affected everyone. Brainwashing, truth serums, hypnosis, just three of the weapons in the armoury of mind control. Every bit as terrifying in its own way as the threat of nuclear annihilation looming overhead. Is it any wonder that paranoia developed?


Of course, the concept was a gift to the writers of crime and espionage thrillers and film producers throughout the 1950s, becoming a staple plot ingredient and its value has only become more embedded in the entertainment industry since.  The general approach was for the victim, perhaps after an intense interrogation, still refusing to talk, being given an injection, after which, in a trancelike state, monosyllabically intoning all his secrets to the interrogators. With the 1959 Richard Condon novel, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, and the film version appearing in 1962, fears of mind control escalated to a new level. Another notable example was the commercially popular and best-selling 1957 Alistair MacLean thriller, ‘The Guns of Naverone’, made into a film starring Gregory Peck, becoming the second highest-grossing film of 1961.  A crucial plot strand was the realisation that a member of the espionage team, after unavoidable capture by the Germans, will be interrogated. Misinformation is deliberately planted so when he is injected with scopolamine, the enemy will be misled. In 1965, another critically acclaimed and best-selling spy novel, ‘The Quiller Memorandum’ also employed this tactic, and the 1966 film was very much in the public eye.


LSD had been created in 1943 by a Swiss researcher. Its effect had come to the notice of the CIA which had become obsessed by its potential. In 1953 its project director, Sidney Gottlieb, arranged to buy the world’s entire supply of the drug. They then commenced a covert and illegal operation, codenamed Project MKUltra, which was to run for a decade. It was the most sustained search in history for seeking techniques of mind control. Using ‘Front’ organisations, bogus foundations, under the guise of research; hospitals, clinics, even prisons, were asked to trial various drugs, including LSD, on unsuspecting patients.

Of course, a number of the unwitting patients found the effect very pleasurable. Amongst them were Ken Kesey, author of, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the band, the ‘Grateful Dead’, and the ‘Beat’ poet, Allen Ginsberg. Thus, unintentionally, the US Government effectively became the godfather to the entire LSD counterculture. The law of unintended consequences in action.


Whilst scopolamine showed initial promise, and was favoured because of its amnesiac effect, generally the ‘patient’ not only had no memory whilst under the influence, but also of the time immediately preceding the administration. For espionage purposes this memory control was priceless. Yet, for extracting information, it was flawed. The questioner had to be very clear and explicit, any hint of ambiguity easily yielded information that might be of doubtful provenance. Furthermore, those drugged with barbiturates, which act by suppressing the brain’s ability to evaluate critically the merits of a question, are inclined to simply desire to please the interrogator. Again, with sodium pentathol, (the drug of choice used in many spy truth-seeking dramas,) it is simply easier to let the imagination take over, in the same way that mild intoxication can loosen both mind and tongue.


In summary, despite much research by both ‘East’ and ‘West’, the fact is that the ‘Holy Grail’ truth serum remains out of reach, whilst in fiction it is still current as a much-used plot device. So, as has happened for millennia, in our world, with its many flaws and inconsistencies, I fear we will still have to rely on that staunch and very easily administered substitute, alcohol, in its many tempting forms.