Remembering John c Lilly

John Cunningham Lilly, M.D.
January 6, 1915 September 30, 2001

John Lilly was a revolutionary scientist, doctor, neuroscientist, philosopher, theorist, author, inventor, and explorer of internal realities. He is credited with being the world’s foremost delphinologist, inspiring a generation of dolphin researchers and paving the way for all future interspecies communication. He was the first to map the brain of chimpanzees and invented the “Lilly Wave,” a non-harmful electrical stimulation pulse for use in brain research. His interest in human consciousness led him to develop the isolation tank and use it for his whole life. He was a public figure and interspecies diplomat, and I believe (and hope) that the depth and significance of his outstanding contributions to science will only fully be recognized by future generations.

Lilly worked with and studied dolphins nearly full time from 1955 to 1968. He came to believe that, in relation to human brains, the brains of certain cetaceans, namely some species of dolphins and whales, are “More advanced, but in a very different way.” The evidence that he presents to support this claim is very compelling. Through his own experiences, he illustrated his views that these intelligent cetaceans have highly developed morals, ethics, language, social structures and behaviors, and self-awareness. At the end of his first period of working with dolphins in 1968 he halted his work and closed his lab because he felt that he was unjustly confining the dolphins. Near the end of his life, though, he wanted to start his work with dolphins back up because of technological advances that would have allowed him to further his work while allowing much greater freedom for the dolphins. Just two years before his death he proposed the creation of a “future communications laboratory” that would allow the dolphins to travel between the research environment and the ocean at will. Unfortunately, funding was not available to him.

Lilly’s work with interspecies communication caught the interest of the scientific community on some notable occasions. In the early 1960s he was invited to a “secret” meeting in Green Bank, West Virginia, that was endorsed by the The National Academy of Sciences and The National Research Council. The conference was called by the Director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank and was attended mostly by radio astronomers and their satellite scientists. Lilly was asked to speak for three hours on his work with dolphins. He was confused as to why astronomers would want to learn about dolphins, but learned that some of them had worked on the failed Project Ozma, an attempt to find signs of intelligent extra-terrestrial life by scanning the areas around nearby stars with radio telescopes. When Ozma failed, the scientists concluded that they had been using the wrong methods to find intelligent signals, and wanted to learn more about interspecies communication. Lilly was also asked to speak to such scientific societies as the Acoustical Society of America and The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc. The Green Bank meeting was held in secret because the scientists did not want to appear foolish to the public, but it is clear that Lilly’s ideas were taken seriously by much of the scientific community.
Lilly developed some theories of reality that are pretty far-out. One of his books in particular, Simulations of God: The Science of Belief, reads almost like the Bible. He believed that physical isolation from all external stimuli was the best way to explore one’s own consciousness and felt that he had made contact with a much higher intelligence than human on many occasions. He said of the isolation tank:

“At the National Institute for Mental Health, I devised the isolation tank. I made so many discoveries that I didn’t dare tell the psychiatric group about it at all because they would’ve said I was psychotic. I found the isolation tank was a hole in the universe. I gradually began to see through to another reality. It scared me. I didn’t know about alternate realities at that time, but I was experiencing them right and left without any LSD.”

Words that unite personal revelations with new ideas create some of the most wonderful intellectual experiences possible. Lilly talked about the next stage of the evolution of the human organism, and what he said reinforces and clarifies some of my own most recent theories. He talked about the nature of God and belief systems and consciousness and the effect of drugs, and I really connect with many of his ideas. He talked about the future frontiers of science; he is one of the most open-minded people I have ever read. Honestly, being so completely open-minded frightens me. This fear is a fear of the unknown, like a fear of the dark. If you allow yourself to be so permeable to new ideas, is it possible that you are also opening yourself up to danger? The movie Altered States, inspired by Lilly’s isolation tank research with drugs, deeply explores this possibility.

John Lilly was a brave man who will be sorely missed and fondly remembered. I am working gradually to find the bravery within myself to explore as deeply as Lilly did.