Testing, testing...

Dear visitor,

Obviously, you have landed on the test site of our new project Language and Science!

We will soon take off – in the meantime check us out on our up-and-running Hungarian site:

If you do not speak Hungarian... well.. you just go on and use Google Translate.

And if you have a comment or a suggestion, drop us a line!

The surprising research of John C. Lilly
Can dolphins read minds?

Since dolphins don’t speak English, there had to be another way of communicating with them, one researcher decided. At the dawn of dolphin-research, he even tried psychoactive drugs, on himself, not the animals; much to the chagrin of his peers ... He believed that cetaceans really had superhuman intelligence and was out to prove it.

Boglárka Takács | 08 November 2012

John C. Lilly, an American scientist whose views we can safely call weird, was the first to come up with the idea of communicating with dolphins. Lilly died in 2001 and his ideas have only survived among conspiracy theorists those who venture into the realm of mind-altering drugs. So, why are we writing about Lilly and do we have anything to thank him for?

To float, to hover on the fringe of consciousness

Lilly was a medical doctor whose first area of research involved breathing. Then he began studying the electrical impulses emitted by the brain, mainly in animals. His first subjects were cats and primates. For example, working with macaques (monkeys), he observed how the brain could be conditioned through rewards and punishment.

Rhesus monkeys, the best-known of the macaques
Rhesus monkeys, the best-known of the macaques
(Source: (Photograph from Wikimedia Commons / Ester Inbar))

Lilly built his first sensory deprivation tank in 1954 to test the theory that if the brain was deprived of all outside stimuli, the subject of the experiment would simply fall asleep. He placed his volunteers in dark soundproof isolation tanks filled with salt water, and left them to float. The unexpected result of this lack of sensory input was that after a while his subjects began hallucinating. Lilly, who had had undergone some spiritual experiences in childhood, was delighted.

If floating in nothingness triggered such marvellous visions in humans, what would the minds of animals  that spent their whole lives floating be like, he wondered. In the early 60's, Lilly retired from the public eye and set up a research facility of his own to study sea mammals. One part of his interest in these animals lay in their large and developed brains. Lilly believed dolphins and other cetaceans were more intelligent than humans given the size of their brains. Subsequent research by his peers found that although there is a connection between brain size and intelligence, they also proved that the two did not necessarily go hand in hand. For example, some species of birds, despite being “bird-brained,” have proved to be surprisingly intelligent, despite being tiny.

Lilly was fascinated when he observed dolphins imitating human speech patterns. Dolphins really tend to imitate all manners of behaviour, a phenomenon quite rare among animals, although typical of humans. As the following video demonstrates, dolphins are quite good at copying each other's behaviour too, even when blindfolded. We think that blindfolded dolphins use sound or echolocation to figure out what their peers are doing.

Dolphins are also fond of imitating sounds other than speech patterns (in fact, imitating speech patterns is not one of their strong points), such as the humming of  boat engines. But this doesn't mean they could be taught to communicate in human languages. The most successful series of experiments in this regard was conducted by Louis Herman, who currently teaches at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  Herman taught dolphins to communicate using an artificial sign language. The dolphins were able to use this language on about the same level as bonobos, the top communicators of the animal world, which though an excellent result is definitely sub-human, and nowhere near Lilly’s “superhuman” prediction.

Computers to communicate?

Lilly was a huge fan of computer technology, which was still in its infancy. He came up with the idea of communicating with dolphins through a computer-synthesised language but was unable to devise a system that worked, so the idea was mothballed. Nonetheless, in his enthusiasm, Lilly tried to force his ideas into a computer-metaphor: he went so far as to call the cerebral cortices of dolphins "macro bio-computers" – which his peers considered rather bizarre.

However, nowadays technology has reached a development level that would make it worth dusting off the idea of using computers to communicate with dolphins. A research team led by biologist Denise Herzing and computer scientist Thad Starner has begun to study the communications of dolphins in the wild, using underwater computers. Since the range of sounds dolphins can make is broader than what humans can hear, one problem with this approach is that divers simply cannot hear everything. A new system is now being designed to process the sounds in real time and "tell" the diver which signals it detected from which dolphin.

Ketamine and the Cold War

For now, though, let's swing back to the 1970s. Lilly did not get very far with his computers which though ultramodern for the time, were quite primitive by today’s standards. Possibly because of the failed experiments, Lilly began to think that translating dolphin communications into English might not be such a good idea after all. He said he was afraid his results would be (ab)used by the “military industrial complex.” Instead, he decided to try to communicate with dolphins by means of telepathy using the floating sensory deprivation tank and a hallucinogenic drug called ketamine "which these idiots in the Navy wouldn't try to do". Incidentally, the US Navy did in fact begin training dolphins for military purposes as far back as the 1960s although they failed to officially acknowledge this until the 1990s. (As far as we know, they did not try telepathy.)

A dolphin working as a mine detector
A dolphin working as a mine detector
(Source: (Photograph from: Wikimedia Commons / Brien Aho, U. S. Navy))

Ketamine is an anaesthetic and painkiller with hallucinogenic effects. It is used in general anaesthesia (particularly in emergency medicine), but usually not by itself, precisely because of its hallucinogenic effects. Since this is not a major problem in veterinary medicine ketamine is more widely used on animals. So if you happen to read something to the effect that "young people used horse tranquillisers to get high", the drug used was probably ketamine.

You might think Lilly got the idea of using psychedelic drugs from the LSD craze that was part of the 1960s and 1970s American counter-culture but the real story is much more mundane. A colleague of Lilly’s gave him a dose of ketamine to manage an unbearable headache. Well, the ketamine really worked on his headache and he just loved the side effects...

From then on, Lilly consumed unbelievable amounts of ketamine and even wrote a book about his visions. In it he described his meetings with intelligent extraterrestrial life-forms, some of whom he said were quite nice while others were not so nice. He even reported that a secret galactic war was underway between the forces of good and evil, and chronicled his own significant role in the struggle.

Being wrong never stopped him

Lilly’s colleagues pulled back from this and when he mixed his images with his dolphin studies they dropped him completely. Not surprisingly, this amalgam of scientific observations and hallucinations sometimes led him astray: he described cetaceans as exceptionally gentle creatures that would never attack humans, not even in captivity. In the real world, while attacks on humans are rare in the wild, they occur quite often in captivity.

Tilikum is a bull killer whale (orca) who killed his trainer
Tilikum is a bull killer whale (orca) who killed his trainer
(Source: (Photograph from: Wikimedia Commons / Milan Boers / CC BY 2.0))

Dolphins tend to attack each other, too. Like other mammals, this is their way of establishing a pecking order. Typical wounds they inflict are bites and scratches. They are also good at headbutting.

And how about telepathy? Like other mammals, among which the most observed are horses, dolphins are quite capable of detecting minute signals coming from humans: these cues include changes in posture, the relaxation or tensing of muscles and the like. People, who are often unaware of the inadvertent signals, have wondered whether dolphins are in fact telepathic because they are unable to pick up the cue the animals respond to.

At the same time, people are great at misinterpreting dolphin body language. For instance, when a dolphin opens its mouth it is issuing a warning of possible mayhem to come, while human onlookers take it for a friendly smile. This is miscommunication, not telepathy. To his credit, Lilly did recognize the open mouth as threatening and described aggressive behaviours targeted at humans, too. A lengthy monograph on dolphins he published in 1978 even contains a photo of one of his charges trying to take a bite out of an assistant. But, on the whole, Lilly ignored the evidence, probably because it just didn’t fit into his gentle giant paradigm.

All in all, Lilly's tenets are questionable, to put it mildly. However, he obviously did the dolphins a big favour by publicizing their friendliness and intelligence. The fact is that the friendlier and the more intelligent we humans believe another species to be the more likely we are to protect rather than destroy it...

Tags: animals
I will follow these comments (RSS)
To comment this article login or register.
There are no comments yet for this article. Be the first one to comment!