In vino veritas: The story behind truth serums

This post is in reaction to a Blogging101 assignment that stated we had to personalise a post based on the Daily Prompt. The prompt in this case was called Truth Serum and I thought I’d do a non-fiction spin on it.

Michelle* and I are sharing an end-of-week wine drinking session.  The bottle of chardonnay is chilled, gently sweating tiny drops of condensation onto the table where it stands reflecting the amber glow of the setting sun. And getting progressively more empty.

A strange thing happens as the wine level in the bottle drops.  A secret surfaces. An idea that I have been guarding very closely for some weeks gently floats to the top of my increasingly wine drenched mind and settles on the couch between Michelle and I.

It’s no crisis – Michelle is, after all, a good friend and the secret is nothing embarrassing: merely an idea that I had wanted to keep to myself a little longer, to develop a bit more before sharing with others.

But what happened there? For a second, it was almost as though I really could not control which information I chose to share and which to keep close to my chest. If alcohol can do this to us; is there really such a thing as a truth serum, then?

The answer seems to be yes and no. So-called truth serums are shrouded in mystery and are something we therefore always associate with books on espionage or the latest action film with an antagonist named Yuri.

But a quick Google search on truth serums shows that people have long experimented with different drugs that would make informants more amenable to sharing certain information. The idea was, in fact, first put forward by a certain Dr. Robert House in 1922 after he noticed that scopolamine, administered to women during childbirth, had the strange effect of making these women much more candid than normal. Given the ethical questions surrounding these drugs, few proper clinical trials have been conducted and in those that have, the success rate is unclear as it would seem that people who are deceitful when sober can maintain the deceit while under the influence of a so-called truth serum such as Scopolamine.

And, yes, alcohol is probably one of the most basic truth serums out there, though we don’t always think of it that way. It’s no secret that alcohol reduces our inhibitions, cancelling out the neocortex’s regulating function and allowing our more primal brain to take over.

The Latin expression “In vino veritas” (In wine, there is truth) encapsulates this perfectly. In fact, the truth serum-properties of wine were well-known even during the time of the Roman empire, when contemporary historian Tacitus noted that Germanic tribes would always hold their councils while drinking, as it was believed that it was impossible to lie when drunk.

The sentiment behind In vino veritas is also culturally ubiquitous, with many languages having similar expressions. In Russia, what a sober man has on his mind, a drunk man has on his tongue. In China, it is commonly accepted that after wine blurts truthful speech.

And here in South Africa, I have another bottle of chardonnay chilling in the fridge. As an aspiring non-fiction writer I do, after all, hold the pursuit of truth and journalistic integrity as my utmost responsibilities. A toast, then, as I chant along to this ditty (titled In vino veritas), which was written by Benjamin Cooke in the 1770s:

Round, round with the glass, boys, as fast as you can,

Since he who don’t drink cannot be a true man.

For if truth is in wine, then ’tis all but a whim

To think a man’s true when the wine’s not in him.

Drink, drink, then, and hold it a maxim divine

That there’s virtue in truth, and there’s truth in good wine!

*Names have been changed in order to protect the drinkers’ identities.