In A Nutshell
John Lilly was a neuroscientist and pioneering “psychonaut” who invented the sensory deprivation tank and experimented heavily with psychedelic drugs. During a period of extended research on dolphins, he combined these two interests by actually giving LSD to dolphins to see what would happen.
The Whole Bushel
Neuroscientist and biologist John C. Lilly was a pioneer in the study of electrical activity in the brain. He is the inventor of the electrocorticograph, or ECG, which displays brain activity on a graph, but that’s not even his coolest invention—in 1954, he devised the first sensory deprivation tank.
You see, Dr. Lilly was also a big fan of psychedelic drugs. He was a “psychonaut,” a practitioner of the use of psychedelic drugs as a means to explore consciousness and the self. He was even known to use LSD in the sensory deprivation tank, which we’re sure led to some very interesting experiences that we’d rather not think about.
Dr. Lilly began working with dolphins in the late ’50s, convinced that they are highly intelligent (they are) and use a form of language (they do). In one of his more disturbing experiments, a female assistant lived with a male dolphin in a partially flooded house for months, attempting to teach it to speak English. It didn’t work, but it did develop a sexual attraction toward the woman, and once again we’re going to move on without thinking too hard.
Lilly admitted in an interview (well, actually, he was quite proud of it) that he had indeed given acid to dolphins to see what would happen. What happened, according to him, was that they tripped on LSD, swimming away from their sonar and bobbing along the surface of the water. He claims that they had “wonderful trips” and displayed behavior—coming closer to him, taking odd floating positions—that they previously had not, which doesn’t seem that surprising, really.
Dr. Lilly’s work with dolphins inspired the 1973 film Day of the Dolphin, in which a scientist teaches dolphins to speak; his pioneering sensory deprivation work likewise inspired the very weird 1980 film Altered States, in which another scientist regresses to a primal form after repeated sensory deprivation experiments. All of this inspired mainstream scientists to try very hard to forget about him.