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John C. Lilly Interviewed

by Rebecca McClen & David Jay Brown: By combining 35 years of academic training with a stubborn refusal to play by academia’s rules, John C. Lilly, M.D.has become something of a new age icon. Ridiculed as a cosmic trickster by some and lauded as a pioneer in human consciousness by others, Lilly’s refusal to be pigeonholed makes him hard to pin down. He is a neurophysiologist, neuroanatomist, biophysicist, computer theorist, dolphin researcher, inventor, drug experimenter, and consciousness explorer. He is the author of ten books, hundreds of scientific articles and was the prototype for two Hollywood films, Altered States and The Day of the Dolphins.

After earning his M.D. at Dartmouth Medical School, Lilly pioneered scientific research in the areas of electrical brain stimulation, sensory deprivation and human-dolphin communication. He invented the isolotion tank in the 1950s and began using psychedelics such as LSD and ketamine in the solitude of the tank about a decade later.

Lilly’s seminal work with cetaceans, recounted in the books Man and Dolphin, The Mind of the Dolphin, and Lilly on Dolphins, inspired a generation to rethink the relationship between humans and other species. His incredible journeys through inner space were documented in popular books such as The Center of the Cyclone, The Scientist, and John Lilly So Far. His guidelines for using psychedelics were published under the title, Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer.

The following interview is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by David Jay Brown and Rebecca McClen, to be published by Crossing Press in the Spring of 1993, entitled Mavericks of the Mind.

RM~DB: What was it that originally inspired your interest in neuroscience and the nature of reality?

John Lilly: At age sixteen, I wrote an article for my prep school’s paper called “Reality” that laid out the trip for the rest of my life-thought versus brain activity and brain structure. I went to CalTech to study the biological sciences, where I took my first course in neuroanatomy. Later I went to Dartmouth Medical School, where I took another course in neuroanatomy, and at the University of Pennsylvania I studied the brain even further. So I learned more about the brain than I can tell you.

RM~DB: In what ways do you think your Catholic background influenced your mystical experiences?

John Lilly: At Catholic school I learned about tough boys and beautiful girls. I fell in love with Margaret Vance, never told her though, and it was incredible. I didn’t understand about sex, so I visualized exchanging urine with her. My father had one of these excercise machines with a belt worn around the belly or rump and a powerful electric motor to make the belt vibrate. I was on this machine, and all the vibration stimulated my erogenous zones. Suddenly my body fell apart, and my whole being was enraptured. It was incredible.

I went to confession the following morning, and the priest said, “Do you jack off?” I didn’t know what he meant; then suddenly I did, and I said, “No.” He called it a mortal sin. I left the church thinking, “If they’re going to call a gift from God a mortal sin, then to hell with them. That isn’t my God, they’re just trying to control people.”

RM~DB: What is your personal understanding of God?

John Lilly: When I was seven years old I had a vision alone in a Catholic church. Suddenly I saw God on his throne; an old man with a white beard and white hair surrounded by angels and the saints parading around with a lot of music. I made the mistake of asking a nun about the vision and she said, “Only saints have visions!” I assumed that she thought I wasn’t a saint.

So I kept that in memory, and on my first acid trip I relived it completely to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And suddenly I realized that I, as a little boy, had constructed this to explain the experience I had. I realized that one has to project onto an experience if one is going to talk about it, because the experience itself can’t be said in words. But if you are going to talk about it, you choose words which you feel are most appropriate. I saw an old man with white hair because the pre-programming was there.

RM~DB: Has your understanding or idea of God evolved over time as a result of your changing experiences?

John Lilly: Well, when I started going out on the universe with LSD 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. He was well aware of the bullshit of language.

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 that big?” The astronomer said, “Well, that isn’t a problem, your God’s too small!”

RM~DB: Do you think that the concept of objectivity is valuable, or do you think that separating the experimenter from the experiment is impossible?

John Lilly: Objectivity and subjectivity are traps that people fall into. I prefer the terms “insanity” and “outsanity.” Insanity is your life inside yourself. It’s very private and you don’t allow anybody in there because it’s so crazy. When you go into the isolation tank outsanity is gone. Now, outsanity is what we’re doing; it’s exchanging thoughts and so on.

RM~DB: What guidelines do you use when traveling through innerspace?

John Lilly: My major guideline when I go in the tank is, for God’s sake, don’t pre-program; don’t have a purpose; let it happen. With ketamine and LSD I did the same thing; I slowly let go of controlling the experience.

RM~DB: So you don’t ever try and go in with a mission or an idea of what you want to accomplish?

John Lilly: Why should I? I’d only have gotten more ridiculous. Every time I took acid in the tank in St. Thomas it was entirely different. I couldn’t even begin to describe it. The universe prevents you from programming; and when they take you out, they tear you wholly loose, and you realize that these are massive intellects, far greater than any human. Then you really get humble. When you come back here you say, “Oh well, here I am, back in this damn body again, and I’m not as intelligent as when I was out there with them.”

RM~DB: How did your earlier inter-species communication research with marine mammals influence your later work?

John Lilly: Let me say how I got to work with dolphins first. I was floating in the tank for a year and wondering, “Who floats around twenty-four hours a day?” I went to Pete Shoreliner, and he says, “Dolphins. They’re available. Go down to the Marine Studios in Florida.” So I did, and I immediately fell in love with them. Then we killed a couple of dolphins to get the brains, and when we saw them we said, “Oh boy! This is it. This is a brain bigger than ours!” And I thought, “This is what I want to do.”

Well, I didn’t kill anymore dolphins. I studied their behavior and interactions. I was working alone at Marine Studios, and I had a brain electrode in one dolphin, which I regret immeasurably. Anyway, when I would stimulate the positive reinforcement system, he would just quitely push the lever and work like mad, and if I stopped he would vocalize immediately. I knew monkeys wouldn’t do that. And if we stimulated the negative system he would push the lever, shut it off, and then he’d scold us. Then he broke the switch and just jabbored away.

So we then took the tape of this over to a friend of mine’s house, and his tape machine ran at only half the speed of what we had recorded in. It was incredible. We didn’t believe it at first. A dolphin making human sounds.

So when I got my lab organized in Miami I turned to Ellsbrough and said, “I’m going in there to try this with Elvar.” So I went and shouted at the dolphin we called Elvar, “Elvar! Squirt water!” He zoomed right back immediately, “Squouraarr rahher.” And I said, “No. Squirt water.” And finally after about ten times, he had it so we could understand it. It was just an amazing experience.

RM~DB: Do you think that he had an understanding of what he was saying, or do you think he was just mimicking the sounds?

John Lilly: If you’re experiencing a foreign language, what do you do?

RM~DB: Well, the first thing you do is mimic.

John Lilly: That’s right. And slowly, but surely, your phonemic system masters the sounds, right? And it doesn’t make any difference whether it makes sense or not. Then the next thing you have to do is hook the phonemes up and make words. And then you have to hook the words up to make sentences. And then the meaning, the semantic system in your brain, starts working. So we have to go through all these steps, and if you’re at all smart you’ll realize that you have to have intensive contact with the other language, with someone who speaks it very well. I learned Swedish that way, and that’s what we did with the dolphins.

RM~DB: So how did this work with dolphins influence your experiences with ketamine in the isolation tank?

John Lilly: Well, I discovered that dolphins have personalities and are valuable people. I began to wonder about the capabilities of whales, which have much larger brains.

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 threshold language is acquired very rapidly, as in a baby. Well, this means that the dolphins’ lives are probably as complicated as ours. But what about their spiritual life? Can they get out of their bodies and travel? Are they extraterrestrial? I asked those kinds of questions. Most people wouldn’t ask them.

So I took ketamine by the tank at Marine World in Redwood City. I got into the tank, and I had a microphone near my head and an underwater speaker that went down into the dolphin tank. My microphone hit their loudspeaker underwater. So I waited. Then I began to feel that I was in direct contact with them, and when one of them whistled, a long whistle, it went from my feet right up to my head. I went straight out of my body. They took me to the dolphin group mind. Boy, that was scary! I shouted and carried on. I said, “I can’t even handle one dolphin, much less a group mind of dolphins!”

So instead of that they put me into a whale group mind, and when you have an experience like that, you realize that some of the LSD experiences may have been in those group minds, not in outer space at all. Since then I suspect that they’re all ready to talk and carry on with us if we are not so blind. So we open up pathways to them with ketamine, LSD, swimming with them, falling in love with them, and them falling in love with us. All the non- scientific ways.

RM~DB: Have you ever given ketamine to a dolphin?

John Lilly: No. I gave them acid to see if it would knock out their respiration. It didn’t. I couldn’t understand what was happening to them on LSD except for one thing they did. They turned around along the tank at the same time, and suddenly they turned their beaks down and turned on their sonar straight downwards. I remember on my first acid trip the floor suddenly disappeared, and I saw the stars on the other side of the earth. So I stamped my foot on the floor to find it. That’s what they were doing.

RM~DB: Why did you stop doing the English experiments with dolphins?

John Lilly: Because I was appalled by what those idiots in the Navy were doing. Boy, I’ve been trying to stop talking about dolphins. I was enslaved by them for twenty years, and now I’m trying to avoid them for a while. But I can’t. People like you come out and remind me of them.

RM~DB: Okay, let’s get back to people. What do you think about people who suffer from a disruption of their interior reality or experience problems in coming to terms with their inner processes in relation to the world around them?

John Lilly: Do you know Candice Pert’s work? Well, she’s found 52 peptides in the brain that control mood. As Pert said, “Once we understand the chemistry of the brain there will be no use for psychoanalysis.” She says that the brain is a huge, diverse chemical factory. We cannot make generalizations about any one of these yet but, for instance, if you give an overdose of one of these peptides, people get depressed, or if you give an overdose of another one, they get euphoric and so on. If you OD on cocaine your brain changes it’s operation, but if you’re aware of this and you pay attention you realize that yes, it modifies some things, but it doesn’t always do it the same way. So there’s this modulation of life versus brain chemistry continuously. I gave up long ago trying to figure out how the brain works because it’s so immense and complex. We don’t yet know how thought is connected to operations in the brain!

RM~DB: What directions do you think neuroscience should be taking? What are the most important avenues of exploration?

John Lilly: The most important things to do in science are to figure out who humans are and how they operate biochemically. We’re never going to understand how the brain works. I always say that my brain is a big palace, and I’m just a little rodent running around inside it. The brain owns me, I don’t own the brain. A large computer can simulate totally a smaller computer, but it cannot simulate itself because if it did there wouldn’t be anything left except the simulation. Consciousness would stop there.

RM~DB: Could it not be possible for human beings to create a computer system large and complex enough that, although it may not be able to understand itself, it would be able to understand the human brain?

John Lilly: No, because we don’t know the basis for the human brain. There’s no way to tell what the hell language the brain uses. Van Neumann said it was strictly by accident that we discovered multiplication, addition, and subtraction. If we discovered the mathematics of the brain we’d be way ahead of where we are now.

RM~DB: Do you think memories are actually stored in the brain or do you agree with Rupert Sheldrake’s theory that memories are stored in information fields or something similar?

John Lilly: I’ve read some of Sheldrake’s stuff, and he’s too glib. He’s got an explanation for everything. The universe is much more complicated than he’s trying to make it out to be. People tend to do this; I’ve tried to avoid it. I make fun of my own theories. I say, “What I believe to be true is unbelievable,” so that I don’t believe in anything.

RM~DB: Do you think that the brain acts as a transceiver?

John Lilly: Yeah, that’s right. The brain, the biocomputer, is a huge transmitter/receiver, and we’re just beginning to see what it is. Have you ever seen anything like a TV show on ketamine? They’re real. The first time I saw that I thought, “My God, all we’re doing is increasing the sensitivity of the brain to microwaves.” And the problem with microwaves is that they’re influencing us below our level or awareness all the time. This morning for instance, on ketamine, I went into this place where all these people were interacting and I got involved. When I came back I realized that I had got into a soap opera on TV and was taking part in it as if it was reality!

Now kids must do this all the time. Marvelous! But you’ve got to watch out because you may be taken in and think they’re extraterrestrial or something, unless you can see something that cues you in that this is a TV station.

RM~DB: How do you, or do you, distinguish between mind and body, spirit and matter?

John Lilly: Those are all explanatory principles. Naming such things is a dichotomy. The only dichotomies are in language and in the eye of the observer. Until you can describe the system of mathematical continuous process, or stepless process, then you aren’t really saying anything. As I keep saying in every workshop I give, “For the rest of this week you are going to hear a lot of stuff, and all of it is bullshit.” You know why? Because language itself is bullshit. It’s a way of spending your time without experience of experiment.

RM~DB: What do you think of Terence McKenna’s statement that language actually creates reality?

John Lilly: No, it doesn’t. Language creates reality? That doesn’t make any sense at all. All we do is construct simulations. I construct the simulation of you for instance, and I turn this into words. But that simulation is nowhere near who you really are. Then I tell you what my simulation of you is and you correct it, and on and on. You cannot substitute words for the action of the brain, the action of thought, or the action of mind. When I say mind I’m talking about the whole universe of stuff, see? It’s not that simple.

RM~DB: What are your thoughts about the future?

John Lilly: What’s the future? We act as if there’s going to be a year out there, but we haven’t got there yet, right? And we think the sun is going to come up every morning and we count on that; we expect it. What’s going to happen when it doesn’t? I have a concept called “alternity.” I came back from Chile and sat in Elizabeth Campbell’s living room on acid and started evoking ECCO. Suddenly the energy came out from above and went straight down my spine, and on all sides of me were these divisions like a pie. And I could look down into one slice and see a certain future, and the right next to it I could see another future and on and on. There were a hell of a lot of them and some that I couldn’t ever imagine. One alternity is enough, so why talk about the future?

RM~DB: Okay, then what about the present?

John Lilly: I’m spending my time trying to learn what it is to be human. That’s why ECCO keeps me around. One day I asked, “What is it to be human?” You know what they said? “To laugh more.”


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