John Lilly

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The Independent Online

John Cunningham Lilly, neurophysiologist: born St Paul, Minnesota 6 January 1915; three times married (two sons, one daughter, one adopted son and one adopted daughter); died Los Angeles 30 September 2001.

John Lilly was a New Age icon. He pioneered the development of the isolation tank as a means to expand consciousness, experimented with psychedelic drugs, including LSD and ketamine, and speculated widely about dolphins as an alien intelligence.

Lilly's early work was more conventional. He completed a Bachelor's degree in biology at the California Institute of Technology in 1938 and a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1942. He specialised in experimental neurology, carrying out studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the US Public Health Service and the National Institutes of Health. Lilly's interest in dolphins was first stimulated by his own early experiences floating in the tepid water in the silence of his dark isolation tank, wondering about creatures that are immersed in water 24 hours a day.

In the late 1950s, he arranged with Marine Studios in Florida to study their dolphins. He operated on several dolphins to study their brain responses to electrical stimulation. Three of the dolphins died, but Lilly was fascinated by the exceptional size of their brains, especially the extensive, highly convoluted cortical areas. In further studies at Marine Studios, and later at the Communication Research Institute in the Virgin Islands that he founded in 1958, he described the diverse vocalisations of the dolphin and began attempts to establish interspecies communication.

In his first book, Man and Dolphin, published in 1961, Lilly proclaimed that the vocal abilities of the dolphin and the extensive development of its brain implied that animals must not only be highly intelligent, but they likely possessed a natural language through which they transmitted oral histories across generations and expressed philosophies. His second book, The Mind of the Dolphin (1967) pursued these same themes, and described further Lilly's studies attempting to teach language to dolphins. These studies ended without any significant success.

In a third book, The Center of the Cyclone (1972), he described a final attempt, in 1968, to "break through" the communication barrier, by administering LSD to the dolphins. Several of them died, which Lilly interpreted as "suicide". He released the remaining three, but their fate is unknown.

During a subsequent 10-year hiatus from any dolphin research, Lilly continued experimenting with psychedelics and continued his probes into altered states of human consciousness. During a two-year period at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, he conducted group sessions on expanded consciousness, entitled "The Dolphin in You". In 1978, he briefly resumed his research with dolphins at Marine World in Redwood City, California, using a computer interface to facilitate communication, but this too proved unsuccessful.

Lilly continued to write about dolphins and about consciousness for many years, producing eight more books from 1970 until his death. Throughout that time he continued to be an inspiration to New Age thinkers and followers. Timothy Leary described Lilly's fifth book, The Scientist (1967), as "a precious relic of our wonderful, incredible age". Lilly's books and ideas were the foundation for two films: The Day of the Dolphin (1973) and Altered States (1980).

His early writings about dolphins provoked the interest of many scientists and students, but his unchecked speculation also led many to dismiss his work. E.O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, wrote that "Lilly's books are misleading to the point of irresponsibility." To the end, then, Lilly remained a controversial figure, part scientist, part explorer, part philosopher, part dreamer, but above all, an iconoclast.

Louis M. Herman