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What We've Learned from Giving Dolphins LSD

Communication between humans and animals may be possible after all.

In 1961, a handful of the world's top scientists gathered at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, home to one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world and the birthplace of the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The meeting was held to decide whether scanning the cosmos for signs of alien life was a worthwhile idea. The group named itself the Order of the Dolphin in honor of John C Lilly, a neuroscientist who would spend the peak of his career taking LSD and trying to talk to dolphins.


Only a few years earlier, Lilly—trained as a neuroscientist—had expanded his research on consciousness and the brain to dolphins. Lilly noted that dolphins' brains were about the same size as humans'. If they were as smart as humans, Lilly wondered, would we be able to communicate with them?

To better study his subjects, Lilly opened the Communication Research Institute on the island of St. Thomas, where he and a small group of colleagues would pioneer the study of dolphin communications. Lilly's early experiments, published in leading journals like Science, suggested that dolphins were capable of mimicking human speech patterns, and that inter-species communication was indeed possible.

But Lilly's unorthodox methods may have had a significant influence on his results. As he detailed in a 1967 article, he had been administering 100 microgram doses of LSD to the dolphins, as one of the handful of researchers in the US who had been authorized to study the potentially therapeutic effects of the drug.

Lilly noted that dolphins on LSD were far more vocal than usual. This was measured through a "duty cycle," or the percentage of the time that a dolphin will spend vocalizing per minute. Without anxiety or stimulation, this duty cycle for sober dolphins can oscillate wildly from zero to 70 percent. With dolphins on LSD, the duty cycle "very frequently does not drop to zero at all."

Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and John Lilly in 1991. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Lilly saw the real effect of LSD when a human or another dolphin entered the tank that contained the dolphin on LSD—this would cause the vocalization to rise to about a 70 percent duty cycle for about three full hours (during control sessions where the dolphin wasn't on LSD, interactions with other people or dolphins only raised the duty cycle to about 10 percent). In other words, as soon as the dolphin on LSD had contact with another intelligent mammal, it wouldn't shut up.


As Lilly goes on to describe in his article about LSD and dolphins, his work provided important insights into LSD and psychotherapy, even if he failed to prove that he could establish meaningful communication with his subjects. Instead, Lilly and the dolphins communicated in a "silent language," that was made up of nonsense vocalizations and physical contact.

"They will tell us when they don't want us in the pool, they will tell us when they do want us to come in," Lilly said. "They do this by gestures, by nudging, stroking, and all sorts of this non-verbal, non-vocal language. It is a very primitive level, but it is absolutely necessary to make progress on other levels."

And what about the LSD? Lilly recalled a particularly amazing result of his experiments which involved a dolphin that had been rescued after being shot through the tail three times with a spear gun. The dolphin's previous owners had enjoyed a close relationship with the dolphin until the traumatic incident occurred, but "after it happened she would not come near human beings at all." This dolphin exhibited this very scared behavior, always staying on the far side of the pool whenever anyone else was in it.

Two years after the incident, Lilly used this dolphin as one of his control subjects and injected her with 100 micrograms of LSD.

"As the LSD effect came on, 40 minutes after the injection, the dolphin came over to me," Lilly wrote. "She had not approached me before. She stayed still in the tank with one eye out of water looking me in the eye for ten minutes without moving. This was a completely new behavior. I moved around to see if there would be any effect from my movements [and] she followed me right around the edge of the tank. She will now come within five feet of me instead of staying 20 feet away."


Although Lilly's experiments into dolphin communication were in many ways an ethical and scientific failure, his work had a profound and positive impact on the way we think about drugs, psychology, and interspecies communication. Thanks in part to Lilly's humanizing approach to dolphin intellect, they're now recognized as one of the most intelligent creatures on Earth, which has prompted a number of large scale conservation efforts to protect them. Even researchers at the SETI institute, the California-based extra terrestrial research institute,are continuing Lilly's legacy by investigating how dolphin and other animal communications can help them design a filter that will be able to determine whether a radio signal from space is extraterrestrial in origin.

Today, the field of human-dolphin communication is alive and well: There are now machine interfaces that are capable of "translating" dolphin vocalizations and other research has found that dolphins exhibit vocalization complexity that rivals that of human language (although the existence of a dolphin language, or dolphinese, is still a controversial subject).

Ultimately, however, much of Lilly's work with dolphins and LSD occurs only at the limits of language, allowing for meaning even when words might fail.

"The important thing for us with the LSD in the dolphin is that what we see has no meaning in the verbal sphere," wrote Lilly. "The meaning resides completely in this non-verbal exchange. This is where our progress has been made. We are out of what you might call the rational exchange of complex ideas because we haven't developed communication in that particular way as yet. We hope to eventually, [but] we accept communication on any level where we can reach it."

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