John Lilly Interview

Carolyn and I met John Lilly in the late 1980s, and we become good friends over the years. He was an extraordinary human being and a gifted genius.

John C. Lilly, M.D. was a brilliant visionary researcher and maverick thinker, whose interdisciplinary work helped to revolutionize numerous scientific fields. He was a physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, mind explorer, philosopher, writer, and inventor, who lived from 1915 to 2001 and made significant contributions to the fields of neurophysiology, biophysics, electronics, computer science, and neuroanatomy.

John pioneered radical new frontiers in psychology and neuroscience, and he charted his brave explorations of the human mind. However, John is perhaps best known as the man behind the fictional scientists dramatized in the Hollywood films Altered States and The Day of the Dolphin.

John was educated at CalTech, Dartmouth Medical School, and the University of Pennsylvania, and he did a large part of his scientific research at the National Institute of Mental Health during the 1950s. John pioneered early neuroscience research in electrical brain stimulation, mapping out the pleasure and pain pathways in the brain. He was the first person to conduct scientific studies attempting to communicate with dolphins and whales, which he recognized as having high intelligence, and he built his own dolphin-communication research lab in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. John also invented the isolation or flotation tank and did significant research in the area of sensory deprivation.

When I lived in LA during the early 1990s, I used to hang out regularly at John’s estate in Malibu, and after he moved to Hawaii, I spent a glorious month at his place in Maui. I loved John. I miss John’s brilliant mind, his clever jokes, and his unique perspective so much. John was eccentrically lovable, often unpredictable, and he had a great sense of humor. I interviewed John in 1991 for my book Mavericks of the Mind,” which also contains my interview with Carolyn. John was 76 at the time and I was 30.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

David: How did your work with the dolphins influence your experience in the isolation tank?
John: I discovered that dolphins have personalities and are valuable people. I began to wonder about whales, which have much larger brains, and I wondered what their capabilities are. There’s a threshold of brain size for language as we know it, and as far as I can make out it’s about 800 grams.

Anybody below that, like the chimpanzee or the gorilla can’t learn to speak a language. But above that language is acquired very rapidly, as in a baby. Well, this means that the dolphin’s life is probably as complicated as ours, but what about their spiritual life? Can they get out of their bodies and travel? Are they extraterrestrials? I asked those kinds of questions. Most people wouldn’t ask them. . . .

. . .when I started going out on the universe. . . in the tank, I’d come to a certain group of entities and I’d say, “Are you God?” And they’d say, “Well, we say that to some people but God is way up there somewhere with the angels.” And it turned out no matter how big they were, God is bigger. So finally I got to the Starmaker. But as Olaf Stapledon says in his book, it’s impossible to describe the Starmaker in human terms. . . .

I call God ECCO now. The Earth Coincidence Control Office. It’s much more satisfying to call it that. A lot of people accept this and they don’t know that they’re just talking about God. I finally found a God that was big enough. As the astronomer said to the Minister, “My God’s astronomical.” The Minister said, “How can you relate to something so big?” The astronomer said, “Well, that isn’t the problem, your God’s too small!”

[Note: Bottlenose dolphins have larger brains than humans— 1600 grams versus 1300 grams— and they have a brain-to-body-weight ratio that is greater than the great apes do (but lower than humans).]

by David Jay Brown

Share Story: