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

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.”

However, Lilly and his team were ultimately unable to make sense of the tripping dolphins’ signals, and funding was soon withdrawn. Describing his findings, Lilly wrote that “the important thing for us with the LSD in the dolphin is that what we see has no meaning in the verbal sphere… 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.”

In spite of this, he insisted that interspecies communication had been initiated on a non-verbal level. “We have developed a ‘silent’ language, half of which the dolphins have taught us. 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,” wrote Lilly. “They do this by gestures, by nudging, stroking, and all sorts of this non-verbal, non-vocal language.”

This corporeal communication reached controversial levels when it emerged that the male dolphin, Peter, had become sexually interested in a female researcher named Margaret Lovatt, who dutifully satisfied his urges with regular manual stimulation.

Do dolphins have language?

Denise Herzing, founder and research director of the Wild Dolphin Project, told IFLScience that the failure of Lilly’s experiments and the controversy surrounding his unscientific methods “really affected real scientists’ abilities to get funding for communication work [with dolphins]”.

Fortunately, much of the damage done by this disastrous experiment has now been overturned by robust preliminary evidence suggesting dolphins may possess the cognitive capacities necessary for language, sparking renewed interest in the field. “From everything we know about dolphins, from their physical structure, the complexity of their brains, their social structure, their evolution, it seems there’s potential for complexity [of language],” says Herzing.

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Denise Herzing via Twitter

She and her colleagues are now using pattern recognition software to try and decode dolphins’ audible signals, utilizing a device called the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) box. By categorizing the animals’ vocalizations, the researchers hope to determine “not only the diversity of their repertoire of sounds but also if there’s any repeated grammar or structure which would indicate something akin to language.”

“All we know at this stage is that they have signature whistles which are names for each other. So that’s a word, essentially,” says Herzing. “We still don’t know if they have grammar or structure to that, but we’re looking.”

Animals on LSD

While LSD may not have helped Lilly in his quest to talk to dolphins, he did report some interesting behavioral effects.

For example, one particular dolphin had previously been left traumatized after being shot through the tail with a spear gun, and as a result, would not approach humans. Yet the animal’s behavior transformed following a dose of LSD, with Lilly writing that “she will now come within five feet of me instead of staying 20 feet away.”

LSD has been found to have antidepressant effects in both humans and animals, with one recent study showing that it alleviates depression in rats by redressing a serotonin signaling imbalance in the brain. Study author Tobias Buchborn told IFLScience that “for an animal model to be reliable, it needs to present the same symptoms as the human situation, it needs to present the same biophysiological correlates as the human situation, and it needs to respond to the same treatment as the human situation.”

The reliability of Buchborn’s results, therefore, lies in the fact that the rats responded to other antidepressant treatments, indicating that their condition was indeed an appropriate model for human psychopathology and that the team were able to identify an underlying mechanism that is also relevant in humans.

Yet Lilly’s work failed to test for any of these criteria, rendering his observations somewhat limited in their usefulness and applicability.

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Lilly (right) with famous LSD advocates Allen Ginsberg (left) and Timothy Leary (middle). Philip H. Bailey via Wikimedia Commons

On a broader level, the matter of studying the effects of LSD on animals raises a number of intriguing issues. “Ethically, it’s always preferable to use humans because they can give consent, whereas animals can’t,” says Buchborn.

“But human research is massively limited by the fact that the closest we are able to look inside the brain is via fMRI. This gives us an idea of which areas of the brain are more or less active, but it doesn’t tell us anything about molecular biology.”

When it comes to dolphin communication, meanwhile, Herzing says it’s preferable to conduct research in the wild, since “you’re just not going to see natural behavior in captivity.” Adding LSD to the equation takes things to a whole new level of unnatural, so even if Lilly had managed to talk to his animals, it’s unlikely they would have said anything particularly useful.

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