Psychology Wiki

John Cunningham Lilly (January 6, 1915 – September 30, 2001) was an American physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, psychonaut, philosopher and writer.

He was a researcher of the nature of consciousness using mainly isolation tanks,[1] dolphin communication, and psychedelic drugs, sometimes in combination.

Career summary

Lilly was a physician and psychoanalyst. He made contributions in the fields of biophysics, neurophysiology, electronics, computer science, and neuroanatomy. He invented and promoted the use of an isolation tank as a means of sensory deprivation.[2] He also attempted interspecies communication between humans and dolphins. His work helped the creation of the United States Marine Mammal Protection Act.

His eclectic career began as a conventional scientist doing research for universities and government. However, he gradually began researching unconventional topics. He published several books and had two Hollywood movies based partly on his work.

Career history

John Lilly was born on January 6, 1915, in Saint Paul, Minnesota and showed an early interest in scientific experimentation.

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.

Early research

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, where he began researching the physical structures of the brain and 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 devised specially for insertion into a living brain.


Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and John C. Lilly in 1991

Development of the sensory deprivation tank

In 1953, he began a job studying neurophysiology with the US Public Health Service Commissioned Officers Corps. At the NIMH in 1954,[3][4][5][6] with the desire of isolating a brain from external stimulation, 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. Lilly and a research colleague were the first to act as subjects of this research.

He later studied other large-brained mammals and during the late 1950s he established a facility devoted to fostering human-dolphin communication: the Communication Research Institute on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. During the early 1960s, Lilly and co-workers published several papers reporting that dolphins could mimic human speech patterns.[7][8] Subsequent investigations of dolphin cognition have generally, however, found it difficult to replicate his results.[citation needed]


Lilly was interested in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. In 1961 a group of scientists including Lilly gathered at the Green Bank Observatory to discuss the possibility of using the techniques of radio astronomy to detect evidence of intelligent life outside our Solar System. They called themselves The Order of the Dolphin after Lilly's work with dolphins. They developed the Drake equation to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.[9]

Exploration of human consciousness

In the early 1960s he was introduced to psychedelic drugs such as LSD and (later) ketamine and began a series of experiments in which he ingested a psychedelic drug either in an isolation tank 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 Center of the Cyclone, both published in 1972. Following advice from Ram Dass, Lilly studied Patanjali's system of yoga (finding I. K. Taimni's Science of Yoga, a modernized interpretation of the Sanskrit text, most suited to his goals). He also paid special attention to Self-enquiry meditation advocated by Sri Ramana Maharshi, and was reformulating the principles of this exercise with reference to his human biocomputer paradigm (described in Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments and The Center of the Cyclone). He later traveled to Chile and trained with the spiritual leader Oscar Ichazo (whose attitude to metaphysical consciousness exploration Lilly characterized as "empirical" in his book The Center of the Cyclone). Lilly claimed to have achieved the maximum degree of Satori-Samadhi consciousness during his training.

Later career

He published 19 books in all, including The Center of the Cyclone, which describes his own LSD experiences, and Man and Dolphin and The Mind of the Dolphin which describe his work with dolphins.

In the mid and late 1970s he was an adviser to filmmaker George Lucas.[citation needed]

In the 1980s he directed a project which attempted to teach dolphins a computer-synthesised language. Lilly designed a future "communications laboratory" that would be a floating living room where humans and dolphins could chat as equals and where they would develop 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."[10] In the 1990s Lilly moved to the island of Maui in Hawaii, where he lived most of the remainder of his life.

His literary rights and scientific discoveries were owned by Human Software, Inc., while his philanthropic endeavors were owned by the Human Dolphin Foundation. The John C. Lilly Research Institute, Inc. continues to research topics of interest to Lilly.

Solid State Intelligence

Solid State Intelligence or SSI is a malevolent entity described by John C. Lilly (see The Scientist). According to Lilly, the network of computation-capable solid state systems (electronics) engineered by humans will eventually develop (or has already developed) into an autonomous life-form. Since the optimal survival conditions for this life-form (low-temperature vacuum) are drastically different from those needed by humans (room temperature aerial atmosphere and adequate water supply), Lilly predicted (or "prophesied", based on his ketamine-induced visions) a dramatic conflict between the two forms of intelligence. [citation needed]

Cultural references

Lilly's work, with dolphins and the development of the sensory deprivation tank, has been referenced in movies, music and television productions. In the 1972 novel The Listeners, Lilly and the other scientists who were members of the Order of the Dolphin are mentioned as pioneers by the book the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.[11] In the 1973 movie The Day of the Dolphin, George C. Scott portrayed a Lilly-esque scientist, known to the dolphins as "Pa", who succeeded in teaching a dolphin to speak elementary English.[12]

The 1980 movie Altered States features actor William Hurt regressing to a simian form by the combination of ingesting psychoactive substances and then experiencing the effects of prolonged occupation of a sensory deprivation chamber.[13][14][15]

The American rock group Oysterhead's song "Oz Is Ever Floating" makes repeated mention of Lilly and reference to his work. An example of this is the lyrics: "In the tank he's grooving, ever shifting, sometimes smoothing, out the things that mean the world to Dr. John C. Lilly".[How to reference and link to summary or text]


  • (1961) Man and Dolphin: Adventures of a New Scientific Frontier, 1st, Garden City, NY: Doubleday. (1962) {{{title}}}, paperback, Gollancz.
  • (1967) The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence, 1st, Garden City, NY: Doubleday. (1969) {{{title}}}, paperback, Avon.
  • (1968) Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments, 1st, Communication Research Institute. (1987) {{{title}}}, reprint, Julian Press.
  • (1972) The Center of the Cyclone, 1st, Julian Press. (1973) {{{title}}}, paperback, Bantam Books. (2001) {{{title}}}, reprint, Marion Boyars Publishers.
  • (1975) Lilly on Dolphins: Humans of the Sea, Anchor Press.
  • (1977) The Deep Self, 1st, Simon and Schuster. (1981) {{{title}}}, paperback, Warner Books. (2006) {{{title}}}, reprint, Gateways Books & Tapes.
  • (1975) Simulations of God: The Science of Belief, Simon and Schuster.
  • (1976) The Dyadic Cyclone, with Antonietta Lilly, 1st, Simon and Schuster. (1978) {{{title}}}, paperback, Paladin.
  • (1978) The Scientist: A Novel Autobiography, 1st, Lippincott. (1981) {{{title}}}, paperback, Bantam Books.
  • (1987) Communication between Man and Dolphin: The Possibilities of Talking with Other Species, Julian Press.
  • (1996) Tanks for the Memories: Floatation Tank Talks, with E. J. Gold, 2nd.

See also


  1. Mental effects of reduction of ordinary levels of physical stimuli on intact, healthy persons. Lilly, John C. Psychiatric Research Reports. Vol No. 5,1956, 1-9.
  2. The Deep Self: The Tank Method of Physical Isolation by JC LILLY - 1977 - New York, Simon and Schuster
  3. Black, David (December 10, 1979). Lie down in darkness. New York Magazine 12 (48): 60.
  4. Gelb 2007 p. 140
  5. Lilly, John Cunningham (1978). The Scientist: A Novel Autobiography, 1, Lippincott; 1st edition.
  6. Streatfeild, Dominic (2008). Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control, reprint, 116, Macmillan.
  7. Vocal behavior of the bottlenose dolphin by JC Lilly - Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1962
  8. Vocal exchanges between dolphins by JC Lilly, AM Miller - Science, 1961
  9. Beyond the Drake Equation by Douglas S. Jones
  10. John C. Lilly Dies at 86. Written as a message to visitors on John Lilly's personal website (, and quoted in the New York Times Obituary by Andrew C. Revkin October 7, 2001 Accessed October 2007
  11. Gunn, James E. (1972). The Listeners, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons p. 58.
  12. Canby, Vincent. "The Day of the Dolphin (1973) Film: Underwater Talkie: Scott Stars in Nichols's 'Day of the Dolphin' The Cast", The New York Times, New York, 20 December 1973. Retrieved on 2010-03-04.
  13. Ebert, Roger. "Altered States", Chicago Sun-Times, 01 January 1980. Retrieved on 2010-03-15.
  14. Hooper, Judith. "John Lilly: Altered States"], Omni Magazine, January 1983
  15. Williams, David E. "Head Trip", American Cinematographer, March 2008 (reprinted at Retrieved on 2010-03-15.
  • Gelb, Michael; Sarah Miller Caldicott (2007). Innovate Like Edison, 320, New York: Dutton.
  • Lilly, M.D., John Cunningham (1967). The Mind of the Dolphin, 310, Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • John Lilly, Inventor of the flotation tank and friend to whales and dolphins. [1], Houghton, Gerard A. The Guardian, London. 5 October 2001. Retrieved on 2010-03-15.

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).