What happens when you give dolphins LSD?

How Neuroscientist John C Lilly’s attempts to communicate with dolphins prompted large-scale conservation.

Neuroscientist John C Lilly spent the height of his career taking LSD and trying to talk to dolphins.

His rationale?

A dolphin’s brain is a similar size to a human brain, and if size is an indicator of intelligence, perhaps there is a way to communicate with them.

To better understand and observe his subjects he opened the Communication Research Institute funded by NASA in the 1960s on the island of St. Thomas where Lilly and his team began work trying to bridge the communication gap with dolphins.

Lilly's earliest experiments suggested that dolphins had the ability to copy a human’s pattern of speech- alluding to the eventuality of inter-species communication.

But his unethical and unconventional methods impacted his results, and in his 1967 Article: The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy and Alcoholism, he admitted to giving each dolphin 100 micrograms of LSD.

The crazed experiment proved dolphins were far more vocal when under the influence. Sober dolphins only sometimes communicated, but more often than not remained quiet, whereas the dolphins given LSD were quite vocal.

Lilly ran a series of controlled experiments putting stoned dolphins or sober dolphins in a tank with a human or another dolphin. The sober dolphin rarely interacted but the stoned dolphin would not stop making noise and communicating almost all the time

They will tell us when they don't want us in the pool, they will tell us when they do want us to come in, they do this by gestures, by nudging, stroking, and all sorts of this non-verbal, non-vocal language. It is a very primitive level, but it is necessary to make progress on other levels.

Though Lilly’s experiments failed to prove he could verbally communicate with dolphins, his research did provide compelling insight into psychotherapy and the effects of LSD. Thanks to Lilly and his team, dolphins are now recognised as one of the most intelligent mammals on Earth which prompted large-scale conservation missions to protect them.

Unfortunately for Lilly, the only connection made with the subjects was at the very limit of language.

"The important thing for us with the LSD in the dolphin is that what we see has no meaning in the verbal sphere," wrote Lilly.

The meaning resides completely in this non-verbal exchange. This is where our progress has been made. We are out of what you might call the rational exchange of complex ideas because we haven't developed communication in that particular way as yet. We hope to eventually, [but] we accept communication on any level where we can reach it.

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