Wednesday, January 20, 2010


In mankind's long and mostly fruitless search for intelligent non-human life, few scientists have been as successful as John Cunningham Lilly. With The SETI Institute entering their 25th year attempting to locate sentient life in space and the European Space Agency recently joining the fray, it is an oft-ignored fact that John Lilly was highly successful at communicating with non-human beings decades ago. Perhaps it was Lilly's slightly-less-than conventional approach that is to blame for his obscurity.
You see, Mr. Lilly's technique went something like this: 1) Eat a bunch of Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), Ketamine, or other psychoactive drug. 2) Immerse self in isolation tank (below). 3) Trip balls. 4) Understand dolphin language. 5) Repeat.

To the chagrin of much of the scientific community, it actually worked pretty well.

Lilly is credited with the creation of the isolation tank in 1954, a tool that he found indespensable in understanding the deepest workings of the human mind (and, as a result, the workings of non-human, cetacean minds). An isolation tank is basically a pod filled with salt water that assists in studies of the mind by cutting of ALL senses: Sight, sound, touch, and smell. Floating weightlessly within the tank is sort of a shortcut to meditation/Nirvana, so of course hallucinogenic drugs needed to be added to the equation.
Lilly was a pioneer psychonaut whose passion was to communicate with dolphins. By travelling within his own mind, he began to understand the barriers of speech and thought between humans and cetaceans, and eventually how to break those barriers down.

It might sound strange, but the brain of a dolphin is remarkably similar to our own. Bottlenose dolphins have been observed partaking in complex play patterns, shown the ability to understand sign language, and have even shown signs of meta-cognitive reasoning. A dolphin's brain mass-to-body weight ratio (which is a pretty accurate way of judging overall intelligence) is almost the same as a human's, with its actual average brain mass being slightly higher than a human's. A chimpanzee's brain mass is about one quarter of a human's.
I'm sure we're all familiar with Flipper or maybe even Howard The Talking Dolphin from The Illuminatus! Trilogy. These characters would have probably never existed without John Lilly's research, and no one else has come close (or even attempted to) match the breakthroughs he made before his death in September 2001.

Through extensive amounts of research at the University of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Officers Corps, and then his own Communication Research Institute in the Virgin Islands, Lilly formed a set of very distinct ideas about conciousness and the nature of the brain, and was, in his later years, seen by his colleagues as a mix between a scientist and a mystic. He wrote 19 books and several papers on his concepts about human-cetacean communication, the most well-known being Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments and The Centre of the Cyclone. In the 1980's, he spearheaded a project at the Communication Research Institute in which scientists attempted to teach dolphins a computer-synthesised language.
It would be impossible for me to sum up Lilly's findings and theories all in one place, but if you wish to explore them further, this is a good place to start. So is this. Or this. This one is good too. You get the idea.

Some of the most compelling evidence of Lilly's success is probably this: Real audio of John's cetacean friend Peter saying "Hello, Margaret"

Later in his life, Lilly experienced visions while under the influence of Ketamine, and described a malevolent entity (which he called SSI - "solid state systems") that was encroaching upon humanity via electronics and prophesied a great struggle for the survival of mankind. Lilly called the collective benevolent human consciousness E.C.C.O. ("Earth Coincidence Control Office" - Anyone remember Ecco The Dolphin?) and even wrote a book about the impending struggle. Bear in mind, he was still a respected scientist, psychoanalyst, and physician when he was spouting this stuff.

Lilly worked as an advisor to George Lucas in the 70's, and eventually became a well-known figure in the west coast "counterculture" of the 1970's and 80's. He had two major Hollywood films based on his ideas: Mike Nichols' The Day of The Dolphin in 1973 and the fabulously psychedelic isolation tank adventure Altered States in 1981 (perhaps you'd like the the soundtrack?).
John Cunningham Lilly, M.D. was an absolutely tripped-out dude, pursuing ideas that no one had the courage or intelligence to pursue either before him or since. He fought for the humane treatment of all cetacean life, seeing them as our equals and - in some cases - our superiors. After familiarizing myself with his work, I have to concur.

Below: John Lilly photographed with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, 1991.

Get some of John Lilly's books here:

- Programming the Human Biocomputer
- Center of the Cyclone: Looking into Inner Space
- The Deep Self: Consciousness Exploration in the Isolation Tank
- Lilly on Dolphins
- Communication Between Man and Dolphin


John C. Lilly's (outdated) website


RyGar said...

You must have watched the Jeff Bridges interview on Conan, yeah? They were talking about this. There was a good article in the Onion about Dolphins developing opposable thumbs, "Scientists say we're doomed!", or some such. I'm sure the military is still attempting something like this, as naval combat would be revolutionized pretty quickly. Of course, the dolphins, being the more intelligent species will soon turn on their human oppressors, tearing most limb from limb. Soon after, they'll open an amusement park full of fat, ugly humans who eagerly perform simple tricks for their cetacean masters. Human tuna will be the new rage.

Shelby Cobras said...

Nice. And yes, it was Tron himself who hipped me to Lilly. I was a little disappointed at how Conan made light of the whole idea, though.

I believe the Onion headline was something like "Dolphins Develop Opposable Thumbs: "Oh Fuck", Say Scientists"

the saucer people said...

Always good to see an article on John C Lilly. I actually saw him speak when he came over to London in the mid-nineties and got my copy of Meta-Programming signed (which I since lost, unbelievable). His books are incredible and his work with dolphins represents but one area of his incredible output (albiet an important one). There isn't that much audio-visual material out there but one good place to start is the E.C.C.O. release on Silent Records 94/95 which apart from featuring some great ambient music with his voice, there are a couple of original tracks including the dolphin saying 'Margaret' and the most tripped out tape loop that repeats 'Cogitate' hundreds of times till you start hearing all kinds of other words and short sentences (and this is without any entheogenic input I add!).

Cool blog, anyone who has the Crass A Sides, John Lilly, Tim Wyllie, Art Zoyd and Zardoz in one blog is alright by me

Viagra Online said...

That guy is a genius master mind, the way he assert with great confidence his theories about how dolphins communicate with humans.