Scientists Once Gave LSD To Dolphins In The Hope Of Learning To Communicate With Them

Scientists are trying to figure out if dolphins have the cognitive capacity for language. Image: Pixabay

Ben Taub 12/06/2017, 20:56

Ed Annunziata, the creator of Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin series, once tweeted that while he himself has never taken LSD, he did draw inspiration from the work of neuroscientist John C. Lilly when conceptualizing his cosmic cetaceans. Back in the 1960s, Lilly ran a NASA-funded research unit where humans attempted to communicate with dolphins. Somewhere along the line, LSD got thrown into the mix, a researcher became sexually involved with a dolphin, and things generally got a bit weird.

The Order of the Dolphin

Dolphins’ brains are larger than that of any non-human primate, and only humans have a higher brain-to-body-size ratio. Like the great apes, dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror – indicating that they may be self-aware – and are capable of mimicking sounds and actions performed by people.

Intrigued by the intelligence of these brainy marine mammals, Lilly popularized the idea that dolphins may have the smarts to communicate linguistically with humans, penning his theory in a bestselling book called Man and Dolphin.

The book’s success caught the attention of astronomers interested in communicating with aliens via radio signals, and Lilly was soon invited to a search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) conference along with famous astrophysicists such as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan.

In Lilly’s honor, the group nicknamed itself The Order of the Dolphin, and in 1963 NASA stumped up the cash for a research unit on the Caribbean island of St Thomas, where Lilly and his colleagues could attempt to learn “Dolphinese”.

Lilly's research assistant Margaret Lovatt attempts to teach dolphins to speak English. YouTube/BBC

The St Thomas Experiment

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. Previously, Lilly had attempted to study the neural activity of dolphins by inserting probes into their brains, but had had to abandon the project because the anesthetic he used to sedate the animals caused them to stop breathing.

Yet he now had a new tool at his disposal: As one of the few neuroscientists licensed to study the effects of LSD, he decided to administer the drug to the dolphins in order to observe its impact on their cognition and communication.

In 1967, Lilly wrote that LSD made the animals much more vocal, to the extent that “an appropriate exchange now begins to take place.”

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