John C. Lilly, physician, pioneer, inventor, tripper
September 7, 2007 2:02 PM   Subscribe

Dr. John C. Lilly introduced the world to dolphin intelligence (previous post), floatation tanks, early concepts of bioinformatics, and alas, during his later experiments with Ketamine ("Special K"), introduced us to an alleged group of extraterrestrials.

To his dismay, Dr. Lilly's early discoveries in communications between humans and dolphins was co-opted by the military. His invention of the floatation tank moved him into studies of altered consciousness, and when combined with psychotropic drugs, led him to faraway places indeed.

As for his experiments with Ketamine, well perhaps this excerpt gives a good idea of where things went - "After three weeks of hourly K injections, Lilly decided that he would travel to the east coast to warn political leaders and members of the media of the threat posed by SSI . In New York, he phoned the White House to warn then President Gerald Ford about "a danger to the human race involving atomic energy and computers."

Along the way he inspired two movies. Here are a few more interesting John Lilly links:

Transcribed interview.

Audio lecture (with some trippy background music added).

Official website alphabetical index.

Finally, if all this is just too serious, perhaps you'll enjoy the Simpson's spin on the floatation tank experience....
posted by janetplanet (21 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Bioinformatics - I do not think it means what you think it means....
posted by the painkiller at 2:11 PM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

John Lilly: At Catholic school I learned about tough boys and beautiful girls. I fell in love with Margaret Vance, never told her though, and it was incredible. I didn't understand about sex, so I visualized exchanging urine with her. My father had one of these excercise machines with a belt worn around the belly or rump and a powerful electric motor to make the belt vibrate. I was on this machine, and all the vibration stimulated my erogenous zones. Suddenly my body fell apart, and my whole being was enraptured. It was incredible.

I went to confession the following morning, and the priest said, "Do you jack off?" I didn't know what he meant; then suddenly I did, and I said, "No." He called it a mortal sin. I left the church thinking, "If they're going to call a gift from God a mortal sin, then to hell with them. That isn't my God, they're just trying to control people."

posted by geos at 2:13 PM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Gilding the Lilly.
posted by The Bellman at 2:17 PM on September 7, 2007

In the province of the mind, what is believed to be true is true or becomes true within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally.

Repeat and explore.
posted by Curry at 2:27 PM on September 7, 2007

Weird, I was just posting about John Lilly's ketamine adventures on a different thread last week. Of course, it was one of my usual derails, so I've no idea what that thread was about.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:31 PM on September 7, 2007

Of course, it was one of my usual derails, so I've no idea what that thread was about.

Yeh, happens to me all the time, too.

*snorts another great big line of Special K *

Now, time to get crafting a post.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:38 PM on September 7, 2007

If you're gonna go big, go big. Bravo, I say. You've got spunk.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:40 PM on September 7, 2007

Carl Weathers is now doing commercials for deodorant.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:41 PM on September 7, 2007

I spoke to Dr. Lilly when I was in college. A lot of people think he was crazy in his later years, but he was a brilliant man who very few people actually listened to. I'm very sorry to hear he's gone.

posted by ScotchLynx at 2:55 PM on September 7, 2007

Oh, he died. Six years ago. Almost.

Maybe I'll throw Altered States in my queue. Haven't seen it in a while.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 3:23 PM on September 7, 2007

the dolphin mind group is watching you masturbate.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 3:25 PM on September 7, 2007

Mod note: a few MOARNSYDE comments removed - the flagger is your friend, team.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:29 PM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks, jessamyn!
posted by signalnine at 3:43 PM on September 7, 2007

This dolphin; it vibrates?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:43 PM on September 7, 2007

from Carl Sagan: a Life in the Cosmos
by William Poundstone
(copied years ago to pass on to my girlfriend)

John Lilly ran dolphin research facilities in Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Coral Gables, Florida. In the years after Green Bank, Sagan often visited on winter vacations. This allowed him to combine his love of snorkeling with his continuing interest in Lilly's attempts to communicate with these “alien” intelligences.
Marine mammals were a pop-culture phenomenon. There was a TV show, Flipper, about a dolphin as anthropomorphic as those in Lilly's tales—though a good deal less overtly sexual. Lilly advised Flipper's producer, Ivan Tors, and two of Lilly's dolphins appeared in a movie version of Flipper. Lilly's books on dolphins became best-sellers. His example must have been on Sagan's mind as he forged his own writing career.
In winter 1963 Sagan met Elvar. Elvar with the voluntary erections. Lilly took Sagan into a room with a large tank of seawater. Elvar poked his head above the water.
“Carl, this is Elvar,” Lilly announced. “Elvar, this is Carl.”
Elvar expertly smacked his head against the water surface. A neat spray of water nailed Sagan in the forehead.
Lilly left Sagan and Elvar alone. The dolphin lolled in the water like a happy dog. Soon Sagan was scratching his belly. The dolphin would periodically dive, swim to the opposite end of the tank, and return for more scratching. Sagan tired of this before the dolphin did. Elvar reared up out of the water, balancing a moment on tail flukes, and emitted a single word: “More!”
At least, it sounded like “more.” It was a high-pitched monosyllabic squeak.
Sagan went and found Lilly attending some electronic equipment. He informed him, excitedly, the Elvar had said “more.”
“Was it in context?” Lilly wanted to know.
“Yes, it was in context.”
“Good,” Lilly said. “That's one of the words he knows.”

- - -

Lilly believed his dolphins could speak English—not well, of course, and their vocabulary was limited. Sagan was not so sure. He was fascinated by all he saw in Lilly's finny kingdom. But it was never clear what was “real” and what was anthropomorphizing. Lilly sometimes seemed unmotivated to make these distinctions.
Lilly would talk about the great experiments he was going to do. Then another year would go by, Sagan would see him the next winter, and it would turn out that the actual, controlled experiment still had not been done. Lilly would spin another colorful tale. They had been trying out the concept when the dolphin did the damnedest thing. . . One year, some of the captive dolphins committed suicide—or such was Lilly's understanding. Lilly gallantly set the surviving dolphins free. These anecdotes were what made Lilly's books on the dolphin so engaging. But “the really critical scientific tests were somehow never performed,” Sagan complained.
Sagan tried to nudge Lilly along. He outlined specific experiments and controls that would actually prove something. It had not even been established that dolphins can communicate arbitrary information to other dolphins. Until that was proved, everything else Lilly did would rest on shaky ground.
Sagan suggested a Bach-versus-Beatles experiment. They would teach a dolphin to distinguish between the music of Bach and the Beatles (dolphins have excellent hearing). The dolphin would be rewarded with tasty fish every time it tapped a fish dispenser that was playing Beatles music underwater (say) but never when it tapped an identical dispenser playing Bach.
Then they would introduce a new dolphin that knew nothing about music and how the fish dispensers worked. A barrier would now prevent the “educated” dolphin from tapping the fish dispensers. Only the uneducated dolphin would be free to do that. Every time the uneducated dolphin hit the “right” dispenser, both dolphins would get food. The educated dolphin would then have an incentive to “instruct” the new dolphin on the way to get food. If dolphins communicate, that would be demonstrable (in many tests, with many pairs of dolphins) by the greater slopes of the learning curves.

- - -

Lilly never performed this experiment. He suspected that if dolphins were to learn human speech, it would have to be through “total immersion,” through being isolated from other dolphins and living with a human, hearing only human speech.
This naturally entailed “total immersion” for the human, too. Lilly envisioned a flooded house. It would be a home with the comforts of middle-class suburbia, only there would be water in it. Dolphins would glide freely among the human occupants' legs. In such a house dolphins might learn human language. It could even, Lilly speculated, be the foundation of a future utopia in which humans and dolphins would coexist as equal partners.
A frustrated romance of Sagan's played a small role in Lilly's more famous dolphin study. One night in Saint Thomas, Sagan dined at a remote mountaintop restaurant. The hostess caught his eye. She was an attractive young woman with dark hair and a healthy, tomboyish quality. Her name was Margaret Howe. She told Sagan that she was bored. Her job as a hostess was evenings only. She wanted something else to occupy her on the island.
Sagan tried to get Howe into bed. Howe rebuffed him, but the meeting had one result: Sagan introduced Howe to anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who was then running the Saint Thomas facility. This led to a job and plunged Howe into one of the most unusual experiments of the 1960s.
In the summer of 1965, Howe lived in the company of Peter, a male dolphin, twenty-four hours a day, six days a week in a simplified flooded house. There are surreal photographs of Howe working efficiently at a desk or chatting on the telephone, eyed curiously by a dolphin as her whole environment is sopping in twenty-four inches of water.
“A dolphin is more like a shadow than a roommate,” Howe said. The thing would stay by her all day and never leave. She could talk on the phone for hours. The dolphin wouldn't get bored. He wouldn't leave. As weeks passed, Howe was subject to depression and crying jags. “I have found that during the day I will find any excuse to get out of the flooded room,” she wrote in her diary. (Lilly meanwhile was contemplating a flooded car for the future bispecies society.)
Peter began exhibiting courting behavior. He lightly nibbled Howe's legs, getting erections, and rubbing against her ardently. As a matter of expediency, Howe took to giving the dolphin hand jobs. Peter would “reach some sort of orgasm, mouth open, eyes closed, body shaking, then his penis would relax and withdraw.” Dolphin libidos being what they are, this had to be repeated two or three times; then, finally, the dolphin could concentrate on its lessons.
That made for a pretty good conversation stopper. Otherwise the experiment's results were debatable. It seemed that Peter learned to say “hello” and “ball” and parrot consonant sounds. But when How asked Peter to get the ball, he would often get the cloth.

- - -

After this experiment, Sagan visited Saint Thomas and played a game of catch with Peter. Sagan threw the ball to Peter, and Peter dove under it and batted it back with his snout. His aim was as accurate as a human's. Then, after a few volleys, the dolphin began returning the ball far to the side of Sagan. Peter was toying with Sagan, performing an “experiment” of his own. Figuring that two can play that game, Sagan retrieved the ball one last time and held it, treading water.
For about a minute, both mammals stood their ground. Peter gave in. He swam into Sagan's' side of the tank, circling him, repeatedly brushing past him. This puzzled Sagan. It didn't seem as if the dolphin's tail flukes had brushed him. Then he realized the dolphin had a hard-on.
The frustrated triangle of Sagan, Howe, and Peter was worthy of Sartre. There was a further twist. Peter was one of Lilly's ex-actor dolphins. Sagan had been propositioned by Flipper.
posted by Mapes at 5:04 PM on September 7, 2007 [6 favorites]

this is your brain on vitamin K
posted by caddis at 5:20 PM on September 7, 2007

His "autobiography" The Scientist about his communications with distant alien civilizations (while on K) is amazing.
posted by kozad at 5:44 PM on September 7, 2007

My dad was a computer consultant for Lilly back in the 70s. Lilly would tell him what he would need and my dad would gather all the appropriate DEC PDP-11s or whatever was called for. Probably did some coding for him as well.

My dad got to go to his big birthday parties in Malibu. John had a lot of Hollywood groupies surround him. Burgess Meredith, Robin Williams. My sister went with him once when she was seven or eight. She spent a bunch of time talking with a tall black woman. Years later, she realized it was Grace Jones.

During this time, I got to meet him. We were on a road trip and went to Redwood City to meet and visit John Lilly at his lab. Very welcoming man. He introduced us to his two dolphins. They were cruising around in a medium-sized tank, maybe twenty feet across. He offered us the chance to swim with them.

When I look back on this...

You know when people sometimes ask you, what's your biggest regret in life? I've thought about this question. It's never anything like, I wished I had taken that job, or applied to that school, or kissed that girl. Any one those "wrong" decisions could've changed my path, but I'm really happy now, so why second guess that?

Whenever I think of regret, I always think of those dolphins. I couldn't do it. Didn't like water, wasn't a good swimmer, just a dumb kid, excuses, excuses.

If I had a do-over, I'd go back and swim with John Lilly's dolphins.
posted by billder at 7:21 PM on September 7, 2007 [24 favorites]

It was found that in male monkeys there were separate systems for erection, for ejaculation, and for orgasm. With an electrode in the separate orgasm system, the monkey would stimulate this region and go through a total orgasm without erection and without ejaculation. Given the apparatus by which he could stimulate himself once every three minutes for twenty-four hours a day, the monkey stimullated the site and had orgasms every three minutes for sixteen hours and then slept eight hours and started again the next day.
posted by delmoi at 8:07 PM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

It was alleged to me that Burgess Meredeth was a frequent companion on these Special K adventures.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:10 AM on September 8, 2007

posted by humannaire at 1:23 PM on October 2, 2007

« Older bin Laden transcript   |   Bee Rapture postponed. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments