John C. Lilly

John Lilly

John Cunningham Lilly (January 6 1915September 30 2001) was a pioneer researcher into the nature of consciousness using as his principal tools the isolation tank, dolphin communication and psychedelic drugs, sometimes in combination. He was a prominent member of the Californian counterculture of scientists, mystics and thinkers that arose in the late 1960s and early 70s. Ram Dass, Werner Erhard and Timothy Leary were all frequent visitors to his home.


Career summary

John Lilly was a qualified physician and psychoanalyst. He made contributions in the fields of biophysics, neurophysiology, electronics, computer science, and neuroanatomy. He invented and promoted the use of the isolation tank as a means of sensory deprivation. He was also a pioneer in attempting interspecies communication between humans and dolphins.

His eclectic career began as a conventional scientist doing research for universities and government and increasingly progressed as he followed his enquiries, into what mainstream science considers fringe areas. An able publicist, he published many books and had two Hollywood movies based loosely on his work. His reputation enabled him to attract private funding for his more unconventional later work.

He progressed ethically during his career from conventional and often invasive research in which the mind under study was seen as a complex object, into increasingly consensual peer to peer interactions with other beings, especially dolphins.

Career history

John Lilly was born on Jan. 6, 1915, in St. Paul, Minn and showed an early interest in scientific experiment.

He studied physics and biology at the California Institute of Technology, graduating in 1938. He studied medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1942.

During World War II, he researched the physiology of high-altitude flying and invented instruments for measuring gas pressure.

After the war he trained in psychoanalysis and at the University of Pennsylvania he begun researching the physical structures of the brain and of its consciousness. In 1951 he published a paper showing how he could display patterns of brain electrical activity on a cathode ray display screen using electrodes he specially devised for insertion into a living brain.

In 1953, he took a post studying neurophysiology with the US Public Health Service Commissioned Officers Corps. In 1954, following the desire to strip away outside stimuli from the mind/brain, he devised the first isolation tank, a dark soundproof tank of warm salt water in which subjects could float for long periods in sensory isolation. Dr. Lilly himself and a research colleague were the first to act as subjects in this research.

His quest next took him to ask questions about the minds of other large brained mammals and in the late 1950s he established a centre devoted to fostering human-dolphin communication; the Communication Research Institute on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. In the early 1960s, Dr. Lilly and co-workers published several papers reporting that dolphins could mimic human speech patterns. Subsequent investigations of dolphin cognition have however in general found it difficult to replicate his results.

In the early sixties he was introduced to LSD and began a series of experiments in which he took the psychedelic in an isolation tank and/or in the company of dolphins. These events are described in his books Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments and The Centre of the Cyclone, both published in 1972.

He privately admitted that his work on LSD was part of MKULTRA.

His career then took the turn of becoming something of a mix between scientist, mystic and writer, publishing 19 books in all, including notably Man and Dolphin and The Mind of the Dolphin.

In the mid and late 1970s he was an adviser to the then upcoming film maker George Lucas.

In the 1980s he led a project which attempted to teach dolphins a computer-synthesised language.


One of the most fundamental insights he found from his experiments is cited from his book Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer:

"Such uses of one's own biocomputer as the above can teach one profound truths about one's self, one's capabilities. The resulting states of being, of consciousness, teach one the basic truth about one's own equipment as follows:
In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits.
In the province of the mind is the region of one's models, of the alone self, of memory, of the metaprograms. What of the region which includes one's body, other's bodies? Here there are definite limits.
In the network of bodies, one's own connected with others for bodily survivalprocreationcreation, there is another kind of information:
In the province of connected minds, what the network believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the network's mind there are no limits.
But, once again, the bodies of the network housing the minds, the ground on which they rest, the planet's surface, impose definite limits. These limits are to be found experientially and experimentally, agreed upon by special minds, and communicated to the network. The results are called consensus science."

Influence on Hollywood

Dr. Lilly's work inspired two movies made without his direct involvement, Day of the Dolphin, in 1973, in which the US Navy turns the animals into weapons, and Altered States, in 1980, in which scientists combining drugs and isolation tanks see reality dangerously unravel.

Later vision

Later in life, Dr. Lilly laid out the design for a future "communications laboratory" that would be a floating living room where humans and dolphins could chat as equals and where they would find a common language.

He envisioned a time when all killing of whales and dolphins would cease, "not from a law being passed, but from each human understanding innately that these are ancient, sentient earth residents, with tremendous intelligence and enormous life force. Not someone to kill, but someone to learn from."


Key books by J C Lilly

  • Man and Dolphin ; Gollancz; ISBN 0575010541 (1962)
  • The Mind of the Dolphin (also entitled The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence); Doubleday; ASIN 0385025432 (1967)
  • Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments; ISBN 051752757X (reprinted 1987 of 1972 original)
  • The Centre of the Cyclone; Marion Boyars Publishers; ISBN 1842300040 (reprinted 2001 of 1973 original)
  • Dyadic Cyclone (1976, ISBN 067122218X)
  • <i>The Scientist (1978 ISBN 0397012748, updated in 1988 and reissued in 1996, ISBN 0914171720)
  • <i>Simulations of God: The Science of Belief; ISBN 0671219812 (1975)
  • John C Lilly with Antonietta Lilly;The Dyadic Cyclone; Paladin ; ISBN 058608276X (1978)

External links

it:John Lilly


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