The Strange Life of Neurophysiologist (and Dolphin Researcher) John Lilly

By Joshua Foer (NG, May 2015)

There are people who go on spiritual retreats to commune with dolphins, women who choose to give birth in the presence of dolphins, and centers that claim to use the powers of dolphin energy to treat the sick. “There are probably more weird ideas about dolphins swimming in cyberspace than there are dolphins swimming in the ocean,”  writes Gregg Martin in his book Are Dolphins Really Smart?  The Mammal Behind the Myth.  Many of those weird ideas can be traced back to a single man, named John Lilly.

Lilly was an iconoclastic neurophysiologist at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health who began studying dolphins in the 1950s.  In bestselling books like Man and Dolphin:  Adventures on a New Scientific Frontier and The Mind of the Dolphin:  A Nonhuman Intelligence, he was the first scientist to posit that these “humans of the sea” had language.  Almost single handedly, writes Gregg, he “managed to transform what was initially regarded  as an odd air-breathing fish at the turn of the 20th century into an animal whose intelligence is so sophisticated that it deserves the same constitutional protection as you and me.”

With grants from major scientific funding bodies.  Lilly opened a dolphin research facility in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where attempts were made to teach a dolphin named Peter to speak English.  As the 1960s dawned, Lilly’s experiments grew more and more unconventional–at one point he injected dolphins with LSD–and his funding began to dry up.  He wandered off into the weirdest corners of the counterculture and carried with him the credibility of the field he helped create.  Dolphin “language” would be an untouchable subject until 1970, when a University of Hawaii psychologist named Louis Herman founded the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu.

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