While Ed Annunziata, the designer of Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin series, has never taken LSD, he did draw inspiration from neurologist John C. Lilly’s work while envisioning his cosmic cetaceans, according to a tweet. Lilly oversaw a NASA-funded research lab in the 1960s that attempted to speak with dolphins. LSD was introduced into the mix somewhere along the way, a researcher became sexually connected with a dolphin, and things started to get a little strange.
The Order of the Dolphin
The brains of dolphins are larger than any nonhuman primate’s, and only humans have a larger brain-to-body-size ratio. Dolphins, like great apes, can recognize themselves in a mirror, implying that they are self-aware, and are capable of duplicating human noises and gestures.
Lilly, fascinated by the intellect of these intelligent sea mammals, promoted the belief that dolphins may have the capacity to speak verbally with people, publishing his theory in the best-selling book Man and Dolphin.
The success of the book drew the attention of scientists who were interested in interacting with aliens via radio waves, and Lilly was soon invited to a SETI conference with notable astrophysicists like Frank Drake and Carl Sagan.
The group dubbed itself The Order of the Dolphin in honor of Lilly, and NASA funded a research station on the Caribbean island of St Thomas in 1963, where Lilly and his colleagues could try to learn “Dolphinese.”
The St Thomas Experiment
The facility was essentially a flooded building where researchers lived an amphibious lifestyle, co-habiting with three dolphins named Peter, Pamela, and Sissy. Officially named the Communication Research Institute but more commonly referred to as Dolphin House, the facility was essentially a flooded building where researchers lived an amphibious lifestyle, co-habiting with three dolphins named Peter, Pamela, and Sissy. Lilly had previously attempted to analyze dolphin cerebral activity by implanting probes into their brains, but had to discontinue the project due to the anesthetic he used to sedate the animals causing them to stop breathing.
He did, however, now have a new weapon at his disposal: He opted to give the substance to the dolphins to see how it affected their cognition and communication as one of the few neuroscientists licensed to study the effects of LSD.
However, Lilly and his team were unable to decipher the tripping dolphins’ signals, and funding was terminated shortly after. “The essential thing for us with the LSD in the dolphin is that what we perceive has no value in the language arena,” Lilly wrote in describing his results. We haven’t established communication in that particular form yet, so we’re out of what you would call the reasonable sharing of complex ideas.”
Despite this, he maintained that interspecies communication began on a non-verbal level. “We’ve evolved a’silent’ language, half of which was taught to us by dolphins. They’ll let us know when they don’t want us in the pool and when they want us to come in,” Lilly wrote. “They do this by gestures, prodding, petting, and other non-verbal, non-vocal communication.”
When it was revealed that the male dolphin, Peter, had developed a sexual interest in a female researcher called Margaret Lovatt, who faithfully met his cravings with regular physical stimulation, this corporeal communication reached contentious proportions.
Do dolphins have language?
The failure of Lilly’s tests, as well as the criticism surrounding his unsound methods, “seriously hampered legitimate scientists’ chances to gain money for communication work [with dolphins],” according to Denise Herzing, founder and research director of the Wild Dolphin Project.
Fortunately, preliminary evidence that dolphins may possess the cognitive capacities required for language has overturned much of the damage caused by this tragic experiment, reigniting interest in the field. “From what we know about dolphins, from their physical structure to the complexity of their brains, their social structure, and their evolution, it appears that there is potential for complexity [in language],” Herzing says.
Employing a gadget called the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) box, she and her colleagues are now using pattern recognition software to try to understand dolphins’ audio communications. The researchers seek to identify “not only the richness of their repertoire of sounds, but also if there’s any recurrent syntax or structure that would imply something like to language” by categorizing the creatures’ vocalizations.
“At this point, all we know is that they have signature whistles that are each other’s names.” “Basically, that’s a term,” Herzing says. “We’re still working to see if they have any grammar or structure to that.”
Animals on LSD
While LSD did not aid Lilly in his effort to communicate with dolphins, he did see some fascinating behavioral changes.
One dolphin, for example, had previously been traumatized after being wounded in the tail with a spear rifle, and would not approach humans as a result. However, after taking LSD, the animal’s behavior changed, with Lilly stating, “she will now come within five feet of me instead of staying 20 feet away.”
LSD has been shown to have antidepressant properties in both people and animals, with one recent study suggesting that it relieves depression in rats by correcting a brain serotonin signaling imbalance. “For an animal model to be reliable, it needs to display the same symptoms as the human condition, it needs to present the same biophysiological correlates as the human situation, and it needs to respond to the same treatment as the human scenario,” study author Tobias Buchborn told IFLScience.
The fact that the rats responded to different antidepressant treatments lends credibility to Buchborn’s findings, demonstrating that their condition was an appropriate model for human psychopathology and that the research was able to pinpoint an underlying mechanism that is also relevant in humans.
However, Lilly’s studies failed to test for any of these criteria, limiting the validity and applicability of his findings.
On a larger scale, investigating the impact of LSD on animals offers a number of intriguing questions. According to Buchborn, “it’s always preferable to utilize humans since they can give consent, whereas animals can’t.”
“However, human research is severely limited by the fact that the only way to look inside the brain is through fMRI. This offers us a notion of whether brain areas are more or less active, but it says nothing about molecular biology.”
In the meantime, when it comes to dolphin communication, Herzing believes that conducting study in the wild is better since “you’re just not going to observe natural behavior in captivity.” When LSD is added to the mix, things become even more bizarre, so even if Lilly was able to communicate with his animals, it’s unlikely they would have said anything valuable.