By Meghna Badami
"Three drops of this and even You-Know-Who will spill his darkest secrets." Every Potterhead remembers Snape threatening Harry with the use of the Veritaserum. For decades, scientists, policemen and psychologists have tried to discover the chemical formula for a potion that makes one truthful. How far have they come though?
Truth sera would be one of the most powerful substances on earth. The ability to make someone a hundred percent truthful with no inhibitions is indeed a superpower. Several substances have been found to lower one's natural inhibitions, making it harder for them to lie. Most truth sera are drugs that affect higher centres in the cortex, pushing a person into 'the twilight zone' and reducing neuronal activity. Since it takes more effort for the brain to mask the truth in such a state, it usually spews the truth. Akin to how your brain acts under the influence of alcohol.
(credit: Business Insider)
There are several drugs that have similar effects but only a few have been studied extensively for their truth-telling effects:
The ‘truth-telling’ properties of barbiturates (originally anesthetics) was discovered by accident when Arthur S. Lovenhart and his associates at the University of Wisconsin were experimenting with respiratory stimulants. The patient who was initially dazed, opened his eyes and answered a few questions!
The exact mechanism of action is not known, but they are known to depress higher centres. Sodium amytal (amobarbital), pentothal sodium (thiopental), and to a lesser extent, seconal (secobarbital) are some barbiturates that can be used.
In October 2013, Michael Mosley, a journalist with the BBC decided to test the effects of such a drug for himself and was administered sodium thiopental. Michael decided that he would pretend to be 'Michael the Heart Surgeon' instead of the TV producer and journalist that he is.
Under low doses, he was able to pull it off. However, under high does he couldn't. 'I'm still confused about what happened', he said. 'But the reason I spoke the truth was because the thought of lying never occurred to me'.
Scopolamine, a constituent of the Henbane plant that induces drowsiness, confusion, amnesia and sedation. It was first employed in 1922 by Robert House, an obstetrician from Dallas, Texas to interview two inmates at the Dallas County jail about the crimes they'd committed.
However, due to its side effects, including hallucinations, headache, increased heart rate, and blurred heart rate, the subject is often distracted, decreasing scopolamine’s effectiveness..
Central Nervous System Stimulants
Use of stimulants such as amphetamine (benzedrine) and methamphetamine (methedrine) is more recent. They cause an outpouring of emotions, thoughts and memories. Although they are not used frequently, they can be administered alone or are often paired with barbiturates.
Truth Sera in the Field
Truth inducing compounds have been used several times for criminal interrogations (called Narco-investigation). They can be used only as an aid and cannot be relied upon entirely. There have been reports of the compounds causing suspects to falsely confess to the crime. Some suspects manage to resist the drug and lie under their influence. This can be overcome by administering the drug secretly, for example in a fake hospital setting.
Some criminals can also train themselves to act a certain way under the influence of a truth serum! Often, a placebo can be used to make a guilt-ridden criminal to confess.
Although they have been used in some investigations, we are far from a magic potion that instantly causes criminals to spew the truth. Moreover, there have also been ethical concerns raised about their use. There have been rumors of death of the accused due to administration of narco-analytics.
Perhaps studying the use of a combination of drugs will help us get there someday. Until then, only the few privileged in the Wizarding World can force the truth out from people!