August 28, 2010
The Dolphin As Our Beast of Burden
D. Graham Burnett on dolphins and the research of John Lilly:
Suspended in warm water, in perfect darkness, Lilly became, you might say, a brain in a vat. And he liked it. Liked it enough that he took a flotation tank with him to his new St. Thomas dolphin laboratory, where it soon became an important tool in his increasingly eccentric pursuit of cetacean intelligence. His own lengthening spells in weightless submersion led him to ponder with mounting awe the sort of mammalian brain that would evolve to dwell in the deep sea. It would be, he decided, a mind like his own, only more so: fearless, deep, and self-sufficient - an expansive intelligence in contemplation of itself. Moving to the Caribbean, Lilly mostly left the electrodes behind, and embarked on a new way of getting inside the heads of his experimental animals: rather than cracking them open like nuts and rewiring them like doorbells, he would cogitate his way in, commensurating his intelligence to theirs, becoming, through strenuous exercises of sympathetic convergence, his own instrument - more and more he wanted to "think like a dolphin." Thus a nasty piece of Cold War psy-ops technology was launched on a new career path: as the head-trip hot-tub of psychedelia. Before long, Lilly, floating in the dark, was piping the feed from the hydrophones in the dolphin tanks to his own stereo headphones and trying to imagine what it would be like to "see" with sound. And that was pretty far out. This is by no means the strangest part of this article.