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John C. Lilly

John Lilly

BornJanuary 6, 1915
 St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
DiedSeptember 30, 2001
 Los Angeles, California, USA

John Cunningham Lilly (January 6, 1915 – September 30, 2001) was an American physician, psychoanalyst and writer.

He was a pioneer researcher into the nature of consciousness using as his principal tools the isolation tank, dolphin communication and psychedelic drugs, sometimes in combination. He was a prominent member of the Californian counterculture of scientists, mystics and thinkers that arose in the late 1960s and early 70s. Albert Hofmann, Gregory Bateson, Ram Dass, Timothy Leary, Werner Erhard, and Richard Feynman were all frequent visitors to his home.

Additional recommended knowledge


Career summary

Lilly was a qualified physician and psychoanalyst. He made contributions in the fields of biophysics, neurophysiology, electronics, computer science, and neuroanatomy. He invented and promoted the use of the isolation tank as a means of sensory deprivation. He was also a pioneer in attempting interspecies communication between humans and dolphins.

His eclectic career began as a conventional scientist doing research for universities and government. But as he followed his own inquiries, Lilly delved into what mainstream science considers fringe areas. An able publicist, he published many books and had two Hollywood movies based loosely on his work. His reputation enabled him to attract private funding for his more unconventional later work.

He progressed ethically during his career from conventional and often invasive research (in which the mind under study was seen as a complex object), into increasingly consensual peer to peer interactions with other beings, especially dolphins.

Career history

John Lilly was born on Jan. 6, 1915, in Saint Paul, Minnesota and showed an early interest in scientific experiment.

He studied physics and biology at the California Institute of Technology, graduating in 1938. He studied medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1942.

Early research

During World War II, he researched the physiology of high-altitude flying and invented instruments for measuring gas pressure.

After the war he trained in psychoanalysis and at the University of Pennsylvania where he began researching the physical structures of the brain and of its consciousness. In 1951 he published a paper showing how he could display patterns of brain electrical activity on a cathode ray display screen using electrodes he specially devised for insertion into a living brain.


Development of the sensory deprivation tank

In 1953, he took a post studying neurophysiology with the US Public Health Service Commissioned Officers Corps. In 1954, following the desire to strip away outside stimuli from the mind/brain, he devised the first isolation tank, a dark soundproof tank of warm salt water in which subjects could float for long periods in sensory isolation. Dr. Lilly himself and a research colleague were the first to act as subjects in this research.

His quest next took him to ask questions about the minds of other large-brained mammals and in the late 1950s he established a centre devoted to fostering human-dolphin communication; the Communication Research Institute on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. In the early 1960s, Dr. Lilly and co-workers published several papers reporting that dolphins could mimic human speech patterns. Subsequent investigations of dolphin cognition have generally, however, found it difficult to replicate his results.

Exploration of human consciousness

In the early sixties he was introduced to psychedelics like LSD and ketamine and began a series of experiments in which he took the psychedelic in an isolation tank and/or in the company of dolphins. These events are described in his books Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments and The Centre of the Cyclone, both published in 1972.

Later career

His career then took the turn of becoming something of a mix between scientist, mystic and writer, publishing 19 books in all, including notably The Centre of the Cyclone which describes his own LSD experiences and Man and Dolphin and The Mind of the Dolphin which describe his work with dolphins.

In the mid and late 1970s he was an adviser to the then up and coming film maker George Lucas.

In the 1980s he led a project which attempted to teach dolphins a computer-synthesised language. Dr. Lilly laid out the design for a future "communications laboratory" that would be a floating living room where humans and dolphins could chat as equals and where they would find a common language.

He envisioned a time when all killing of whales and dolphins would cease, "not from a law being passed, but from each human understanding innately that these are ancient, sentient earth residents, with tremendous intelligence and enormous life force. Not someone to kill, but someone to learn from." [1] In the 1990s Lilly moved to the island of Maui in Hawaii, where he lived most of the remainder of his life. His website was designed during this time by the New York based graphic artist, BigTwin.

His literary rights and scientific discoveries were housed within Human Software, Inc., while his philanthropic endeavors were channelled through the Human Dolphin Foundation. His legacy continues through the John C. Lilly Research Institute, Inc.

Solid State Intelligence

Solid State Intelligence is a malevolent entity described by John C. Lilly.

Cultural references

Lilly's work, particularly his development of the sensory deprivation tank, is referenced explicitly or implicitly in numerous film, music and television productions.

  • Lilly's work inspired two films made without his direct involvement, The Day of the Dolphin, in 1973, in which the US Navy turns the animals into weapons, and Altered States, in 1980, in which scientists combining drugs and isolation tanks see reality dangerously unravel.
  • Lilly and his tools on consciousness (isolation tank, dolphin communication, drugs) are mentioned in the anime Serial Experiments Lain.
  • Lilly was also referenced in the 2001 song "Oz is Ever-Floating" by the eclectic rock group, Oysterhead, as well as British rock group, Kasabian, in their song, Cut Off on their self-titled album (2004).
  • Lilly's sensory deprivation tank is also mentioned in The Simpson's episode Make Room for Lisa, where Homer and Lisa have a float session, as well as the Treehouse of Horror segment that has dolphins taking over Earth.
  • Also, although not credited, in the short story Johnny Mnemonic (and the eponymous movie), there is a dolphin on drugs in a tank that communicates with the Lo-Teks and performs a sort of mind-meld with the main character Johnny at the end of the film.
  • In the film Minority Report, twins with precognition (pre cogs) float in a dimly lit holding tank. Although no explicit reference to Lilly's sensory deprivation tank is made, Lilly notes the wide array of non-ordinary states of consciousness experienced through sensory deprivation in several of his publications.
  • In the film I Heart Huckabees, protagonist Albert Markovski is placed in a body bag by his "existential detective" in order to, "help shut down your everyday perceptions and give up your usual identity that you think separates you from everything." Within the bag, Markovski experiences visions relevant to his existential crisis. In the following scene, Markovski is shown wearing an eyemask and immersed in his bathtub, a practice that may be considered to be the "poor man's floatation tank".
  • Lilly is referenced in a song by Fredrik Thordendal's Special Defects called Vitamin K Experience (A Homage To The Scientist/John Lilly) on the CD Sol Niger Within
  • Laurie Anderson's CD The Ugly One with the Jewels features a song about Lilly: "John Lilly, the guy who says he can talk to dolphins, said he was in an aquarium and he was talking to a big whale who was swimming around and around in his tank. And the whale kept asking him questions telepathically. And one of the questions the whale kept asking was: do all oceans have walls?"
  • Lilly's work with dolphins may have inspired the Ecco the Dolphin games for the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis. Lilly coined the acronym Earth Co-incidence Control Office (ECCO), which refers to his belief that non-physical entities arrange for the occurrence of meaningful coincidences (synchronicities) in order to co-ordinate the physical and spiritual development of individuals on planet Earth.
  • Roy Scheider's character, Captain Nathan Hale Bridger, on the 1993-1996 television show Seaquest DSV was based on Lilly.


In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits... In the province of connected minds, what the network believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the network's mind there are no limits.[2]
If you get into these spaces [non-ordinary states of consciousness] at all, you must forget about them when you come back. You must forget you're omnipotent and omniscient and take the game seriously so you'll engage in sex, have children, and participate in the whole human scenario. When you come back from a deep tank session -- or a coma or psychosis -- there's always this extraterrestrial feeling. You have to read the directions in the glove compartment so you can run the human vehicle once more.[3]
At the highest level of satori from which people return, the point of consciousness becomes a surface or a solid which extends throughout the whole known universe. This used to be called fusion with the Universal Mind or God. In more modern terms you have done a mathematical transformation in which your centre of consciousness has ceased to be a travelling point and has become a surface or solid of consciousness... It was in this state that I experienced "myself" as melded and intertwined with hundreds of billions of other beings in a thin sheet of consciousness that was distributed around the galaxy. A "membrane".[4]

See also

  • cetacean intelligence
  • consciousness
  • Louis Herman
  • hallucination
  • hallucinations in the sane
  • isolation tank
  • ketamine
  • LSD
  • neuroscience
  • schizotypy
  • Origin of the Universe by Energy Systems (According to John Lilly)



  1. ^ John C. Lilly Dies at 86 Written as a message to visitors on John Lilly's personal website (, and quoted in the New York Times Obituary by Andrew C. Revkin October 7, 2001 (reprinted at Accessed October 2007
  2. ^ Lilly, J. C. (1974). The Human Biocomputer. London: Abacus.
  3. ^ Lilly, J. C. & Gold, E. J. (1995). Tanks for the Memories: Floatation Tank Talks. Nevada City, CA: Gateways.
  4. ^ Lilly, J. C. & Gold, E. J. (1995). Tanks for the Memories: Floatation Tank Talks. Nevada City, CA: Gateways.

Books by John C Lilly

  • Man and Dolphin ; Gollancz; ISBN 0-575-01054-1 (1962)
  • The Mind of the Dolphin (also entitled The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence); Doubleday; ISBN 0-385-02543-2 (1967)
  • Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments; ISBN 0-517-52757-X (reprinted 1987 of 1972 original)
  • The Centre of the Cyclone; Marion Boyars Publishers; ISBN 1-84230-004-0 (reprinted 2001 of 1973 original, first published 1972)
  • Dyadic Cyclone (1976, ISBN 0-671-22218-X)
  • The Deep Self (1976, ASIN B0006CP8ZO, reissued 1981, ISBN 0-446-33023-X, to be reissued in 2006, ISBN 0-89556-116-6)
  • The Scientist (1978 ISBN 0-397-01274-8, updated in 1988 and reissued in 1996, ISBN 0-914171-72-0)
  • Simulations of God: The Science of Belief; ISBN 0-671-21981-2 (1975)
  • John C. Lilly with Antonietta Lilly;The Dyadic Cyclone; Paladin ; ISBN 0-586-08276-X (1978)
  • John C. Lilly with E.J. Gold; Tanks for the Memories: Floatation Tank Talks.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "John_C._Lilly". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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