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A Feeling of Weirdness
by Dr. John C. Lilly, M.D.

John C. Lilly with JANUS Instruments

John Lilly, M.D., Ph.D., first delivered this paper at the Fifth Annual Lasker Lecture at the Michael Reese Hospital in April of 1962. At that time, Dr. Lilly was involved in his early pioneering studies of dolphin behavior and communication which he conducted from 1955 through 1963. He then left dolphin research to investigate his own mind, on the theory that the study of the self and the universe are one. His decision to concentrate on himself was prompted by the dolphins who, he feels, taught him a lot about being a human. Dr. Lilly is the author of a number of books, including Man and Dolphin, The Mind of the Dolphin, Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, and The Center of the Cyclone.

      In this paper I would like to discuss a very peculiar effect which we have noticed in the laboratory while working with the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncalus). This effect is an example of the peculiarities of a creative process which occurs in this particular kind of scientific research but which may also occur more widely than just here. To state it tersely: if one works with a bottlenose dolphin day in and day out for many hours, days, and weeks, one is struck with the fact that one's current basic assumptions and even one's current expectations determine, within certain limits, the results attained with a particular animal at that particular time.

      This effect was first noticed in our work in 1955, 1957, and 1958. As I became more convinced of the neuroanatomical size and complexity of the dolphin brain, I noticed a subtle change in my own attitude in regard to possible performances on the parts of these animals. To one like myself, trained in neurology, neurophysiology, and psychoanalysis, a large complex brain implies large complex capabilities and great mental sensitivity. Such capabilities and sensitivities can exist of course in forms we have not yet recognized.

      The working hypothesis of an advanced capability raised our index of suspicion and in turn sensitized us to new sources of information. It was this subtle preparation of the mental climate which allowed us to listen to some rather queer noises that the dolphin was producing in the laboratory and to review them very carefully on the tapes. Because of the possibility of a very large brain capacity and because of musings about the possible areas of achievement already realized in this species but as yet undiscovered by us, our minds began to open.

      This opening of our minds was a subtle and yet a painful process. We began to have feelings which I believe are best described by the word "weirdness." The feeling was that we were up against the edge of a vast uncharted region in which we were about to embark with a good deal of mistrust concerning the appropriateness of our own equipment. The feeling of weirdness came on us as the sounds of this small whale seemed more and more to be forming words in our own language. We felt we were in the presence of Something, or Someone, who was on the other side of a transparent barrier which up to this point we hadn't even seen. The dim outlines of a Someone began to appear. We began to look at this small whale's body with newly opened eyes and began to think in terms of its possible "mental processes," rather than in terms of the classical view of a conditionable, instinctually functioning "animal." We began to apologize to one another for slips of the tongue in which we would call dolphins "persons" and in which we began to use their names as if they were persons. This seemed to be as much a way of grasping at straws of security in a rough sea of the unknown as of committing the sin of Science of anthropomorphizing. Also, if these "animals" had "higher mental processes," then they in turn must have been thinking of us as very peculiar (even stupid) beings indeed.

We are very superstitious about killer whales up here. We know from our ancestors from way back that they once tried to kill a whale like that, a killer whale, and they hardly wounded it. It is known that the whale capsized the boat and chewed up both human beings who were in the boat. It is said that these whales have a good memory and even after many numbers of years pass, they always know which human being had been shooting at them. Raymond T. Aguvlak, American Scientist, January 1973

      About this time we began to be exposed to what I would call the dedicated, opposed skepticism of some scientific workers. These people were for several years in close contact with dolphins in the oceanaria and did not and do not share our views of the possibilities resident in this huge and complex brain. Their view is not incomprehensible to those of us who are in the new area we have opened up. This group of scientists has denied publicly that mimicry of human speech was possible for these animals ("No vocal cords," is typical). When we demonstrated that mimicry existed, they changed their tack, and now say, "Mimicry, so what? Parrots do it, mynah birds do it." If anyone had said to me in 1947 that a whale could mimic human words, I would not have believed him. But in 1957 I was forced to believe--through the experience of hearing a whale do it. The "mimicry, so what" group may have lost their sense of wonder and surprise; we have not.

      However, I do not wish to discuss opposing points of view, nor to dwell too long on the effect of such vociferous opposition on one's thinking. As to the latter, all I can say is that at one time it slowed us down a bit, but the dolphins continue to renew our confidence and make us eager to push on.

      We first obtained the mimicry effect in 1957 by the use of electrodes implanted deep within the rewarding sites in the brain structures in these animals. These results, therefore, may have been caused by the peculiar way that the brain was being stimulated. We considered that possibly the animals did not have this ability when stimulated naturally through their normal inputs and outputs.

      In 1961, Miss Alice Miller and I once again examined the 1957 results. We decided to pay close attention to the tapes of the previous year (1960-61) and look at them from the viewpoint that there might be evidence of a complex mental activity going on in our resident dolphins.

      In March 1960 a dolphin named Lizzie had produced a sequence of humanoid noises underwater. This was the first and last time that Lizzie or Baby, the two dolphins whom we were working with during that period, produced any sounds of this type. In the pool together in St. Thomas they had produced whistles and clicks almost exclusively. The language they were using was strictly "delphinese." However, the night before she died, Lizzie (freshly isolated from Baby) said something underwater which sounded suspiciously like, "It's six o'clock," which I had just shouted to her over the water of the tank. Miss Miller and I reviewed that tape many times and each time the uncanny feeling of 1957 was evoked.

      After the Lizzie episode we obtained an animal which we named Elvar. During his first year, Elvar had begun to develop a new series of voices over and above his "delphinese" one. These new emissions covered such a vast range of vocalization capabilities that we were hard put to analyze them all. His whistles and clicks were interpolated among a series of barks, wails, moans, buzzings, trumpetings, banjo-like sounds, quacking, etc. All of these sounds first occurred underwater, but later more and more of them were emitted in air from his now-opened blowhole. Some of his "quacking" noises had become similar but not identical with those of human speech. In reviewing these records, Miss Miller and I saw some changes from the native delphinese, to noises which we felt were beginning to bridge the vast gap between delphinese and human sounds. We gradually became convinced that this was evidence of beginning primitive mimicry, not quite as advanced as we had found in 1957, but far enough along to be disturbing and exciting.

      During this phase of our scientific development we were moving from one set of laboratory quarters to another; Elvar moved with us. We established a laboratory in Miami in January 1961, and finally had a more stable environment in which to observe Elvar. We began to obtain higher quality recordings of his emissions. In September 1961 we were convinced that it was time to attempt to elicit straightforward and direct production of human speech sounds by Elvar without the use of brain electrodes or even of food reward.

      Our reasoning was as follows: It was already known these animals could be trained to do all sorts of circus tricks in a very well-timed and precise way by means of food reward. It was also known that such training could be obtained from other kinds of animals with food reward. We decided to test the hypothesis that possibly the dolphins were rewarded by participating in activities directly with the human, especially vocal activities. At that time we suspected that a human must also be willing to establish a close contact with a given animal and that the animal must also be kept separated from its own species.

      Elvar was isolated in a shallow small tank. Alice started an intensive effort to induce him to vocalize in response to her vocalizations and activities. Within a few hours of the time that she started this activity, Elvar responded by beginning to mimic her voice. The unearthly feeling was once again evoked. Why?

      Here was an animal who from the viewpoint of evolutionary theory is in a group of mammals who have developed for the last thirty million years in the sea, completely separated from the evolution of the primates which gave rise to Homo sapiens. His anatomy and physiology, though strictly mammalian, were of a strange and different form than ours, including his vocalization apparatus. Despite our careful mental preparations, it was literally a shock and a surprise to hear him say so soon after Alice, "More, Elvar."

The Cetaceans hold an important lesson for us. The lesson is not about whales and dolphins, but about ourselves. There is at least moderately convincing evidence that there is another class of intelligent beings on earth besides ourselves. They have behaved benignly and in many cases affectionately towards us. We have systematically slaughtered them.

      It is at this point that the ultimate significance of dolphins in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence emerges. It is not a question of whether we are emotionally prepared in the long run to confront a message from the stars. It is whether we can develop a sense that beings with quite different evolutionary histories, beings who may look far different from us, even "monstrous," may, nevertheless, be worthy of friendship and reverence, brotherhood and trust. We have far to go; while there is every sign that the human community is moving in this direction, the question is, are we moving fast enough? The most likely contact with extraterrestrial intelligence is with a society far more advanced than we. But we will not at any time in the foreseeable future be in the position of the American Indians or the Vietnamese--colonial barbarity practiced on us by a technologically more advanced civilization--because of the great spaces between the stars and what I believe is the neutrality or benignness of any civilization that has survived long enough for us to make contact with it. Nor will the situation be the other way around, terrestrial predation on extraterrestrial civlizations--they are too far away from us and we are relatively powerless. Contact with another intelligent species on a planet of some other star--a species biologically far more different from us than dolphins or whales--may help us to cast off our baggage of accumulated jingoisms, from nationalism to human chauvinism. Though the search for extraterrestrial intelligence may take a very long time, we could not do better than to start with a program of rehumanization by making friends with the whales and the dolphins. Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection, Doubleday 1973

      The repeatedly painful and humbling part of this experience was that we, as human beings, had felt that man was at the top; we were alone; yet here was an "animal" which was entering into that which was peculiarly human, i.e., human speech. At no matter how primitive level, he was entering into it. He was taking step number one. To convey to you our sense of wonder, and yet the sense of the uncomfortable necessity of continuously reorganizing our basic assumptions, is difficult. We gambled on Elvar's taking the first step, and he did. (We still haven't done as well with his delphinese language.) He impressed us with the fact that he took the first step towards repairing a gap of at least thirty million years in a few weeks. He may be skipping some of the belabored efforts of the human race for the last forty thousand years to achieve our present degree of articulate speech among ourselves. Maybe he is not skipping. Maybe he is just beginning what Homo sapiens went through forty thousand years ago. And he first did it when and only when we believed he could do it and somehow demonstrated our belief to him.

      We now are taking a very close look at his processes of acquisition of these words. We are impressed with his amazing ability to analyze our sounds and emit the products of his analysis. He does not reproduce a word in a "tape-recorder" fashion or in the fashion of a talking bird. In one's presence he literally analyzes the acoustic components of our words and reproduces various aspects in sequence and separately.

      One of our clearest examples occurred when he started saying, "More, Elvar." In one session he started out with, "More, Var," slowing down his natural pace and lowering his natural frequency well into the human range. He then took Alice's whole transmission, "More, Elvar," speeded it up, took it back into his natural frequency region around 4-12 kc per second and repeated it. He then slowed it down, and lowered his frequencies down near those that Alice was producing, and reproduced, "More, Elvar" on the human scale and in the human frequency region.

      In another session in which I was working on the word "squirt" with him, he took the word and reproduced it at a high frequency and in a very short abrupt fashion. It was so high-pitched and so fast that one could not recognize it at all unless it was slowed down several times in playback. Next he went through at least five different variations of the word, each of which he produced in response to my repeating the word "squirt." His productions sounded like "irt," "squir," "ir," to something which sounded very close to "squirt" in a Donald Duck-like voice. The latest studied voice that he uses resembles that of a very small child; it is very high-pitched and thin in quality, and yet of such an intensity in air that it is sometimes painful to listen to when one is closer than three or four feet from his blowhole.

      When one is doing such vocalizations experiments with Elvar, one sometimes has the feeling that he is very impatient with our slow and laborious methods. He acts as if he wishes we would hurry up and understand him. He apparently is pushing points we as yet cannot imagine. For example, he sometimes inserts long passages of delphinese alternating with our words as if to translate for us.

We have never seen a porpoise "go berserk" and attack a human with persistence as a dog or a horse may do. One gains the subjective impression that the porpoise is a firm, fair disciplinarian, exhibiting just as much aggression as will serve its purpose and no more. A female rough-toothed porpoise, mother of a hybrid calf, was kept in a tank alone with her calf and frequently solicited stroking from her trainer. The calf occasionally situated itself between mother and trainer while the mother was being stroked. When the calf was approximately a month old, the trainer in this situation one day stroked the calf. The mother swung her tail from the water, reached up and out, and struck the trainer a sharp, but not damaging, blow across the shoulders, and then with no further apparent fear or anger continued to solicit stroking for herself. Karen W. Pryor, Behavior and Learning in Porpoises and Whales, Naturwissenschaften 1973

      This peculiar feeling of "as if a person or a personality or a being" who somehow reaches out towards us, who comes as far as we believe he can come at a particular time, and who seems to be waiting to proceed to the next as yet unknown step are some of the elements in the feeling that I above called "weirdness."

      I do not wish to give the impression that every new thing we try with Elvar works. We have done several new things with him which turned out to be inappropriate. For example, we expected that when he was sick he would come and volunteer for an antibiotic shot with a hypodermic needle. (We had seen another dolphin do this in the hands of Adolph Frohn.) Elvar would have none of it. As a consequence of several such injections, he singled me out as the villain of the piece and expressed great dissatisfaction with my presence for literally weeks.

      At first I found this inconvenient, but it led to another episode in which we learned something. Dolphins not only discipline their young somewhat the way humans do, but the young ones learn proper manners very rapidly. Elvar was expressing his dissatisfaction with me and his injections in the presence of Chee-Chee, an older female. I was attempting to induce him to approach me at the side of his shallow tank. He had been avoiding me assiduously by swimming to the far side. Suddenly, he whirled about in the water, opened his mouth and barked (underwater) as he charged towards my arm in the pool. Chee-Chee intercepted him at right angles to his course and slammed the bottom of her beak down on the top of his head so hard that I could feel the resulting jar at the side of the tank. She did this just before his jaws reached my arm. Since that episode Elvar has not attempted to charge me. (In general, our dolphins now tend to express their dissatisfaction with someone who is putting an arm or a leg, or an entire body into the pool by pushing the person gently out again by a series of rapid bumpings with their closed jaws against the arm or leg.)

Dave and Melba Caidwell, of Los Angeles County Museum, have summarized care-giving behavior in killer whales. A mortally wounded mother stood by her dead calf, circling the body for an hour until she died, though she never attacked the collector's boat. Another female lingered three days near Hat Island, Puget Sound, after her calf was killed. A crew from Marineland of the Pacific captured a large female near Bellingham, but the lasso caught in the ship's propeller. As she struggled in the water, she emitted a high-pitched, penetrating vocalization. After twenty minutes the high dorsal fin of a male killer whale appeared and the animal zeroed in on the female as if by radar. The two animals together charged toward the boat at high speed, veering only when they had approached to within five to eight feet; then together charged again. This time they struck the boat. The crew killed both whales to save the boat. Pacific Search 1967

      In such maneuverings, and in such non-vocal signals to us, they are amazingly silent in the humanoid sphere. Yet they emit whistles, clicks, and their sonar, ultrasonic creakings as if signalling to one another. However, I doubt that this silence will continue. There are times when they make valiant attempts during their maneuverings with us to use humanoid sounds, apparently in (to them) an appropriate fashion. They apparently become discouraged by our inappropriate responses. The semantics of their language and their thinking is probably so different from ours that we sometimes become enamored of the differences and fail to see simple similarities right in front of our noses.

      Since September 1961 we have been working every day with Elvar's enunciation and his vocabulary. We are now eliciting words with food rewards. He has been working in a tank immediately adjacent to that of Chee-Chee. In general they tend to communicate from one tank to the other underwater in natural delphinese clicks and whistles. During weekends they are allowed to be together for courtship and sexual play. Elvar apparently has been practicing his humanoid sounds when we are not there. We had not attempted to elicit these sounds from Chee-Chee until about two weeks ago. She was not giving them to us except at peculiarly odd intervals. Every so often, however, we would detect a humanoid exchange going on in air between Chee-Chee and Elvar, so we suspected that she was getting some practice in private.

      About two weeks ago it was decided that Miss Nadell (a psychologist working with Elvar) would attempt to elicit humanoid sounds and a humanoid vocabulary from Chee-Chee. Chee-Chee shifted from delphinese (clicks and whistles) in air to fully formed humanoid word-like sounds on the first try. Miss Nadell held a fish up and said "speak" to Chee-Chee. Chee-Chee came back and said something that sounded like "speak" and was given the fish. Miss Nadell then said "louder," and Chee-Chee came back with something that was like "louder" plus a lot of other completely nonunderstood emissions.

      One gets the impression during such experiences that the dolphin has been waiting for the day when he or she would be treated in the same way that another dolphin has been treated. When the day comes, if the "proper" gesture and language are used with that particular animal he responds in the way that the previous one did.

      A third animal, Sissy, has been kept in isolation from Elvar and Chee-Chee on another floor of the same building. Sissy is a much younger animal than either Elvar or Chee-Chee and is relatively undisciplined in comparison to the others. Sissy, about a week ago, was asked to vocalize for a food reward. In the first session she replied and demanded the food reward with a very peculiar delphinese emission in air: with the vocalization apparatus on the right side (inside her blowhole) she whistled in air and on the left side simultaneously she clicked in air. One could see the right side opening fairly widely and steadily and the exit pulsing only with the modulations of the whistles; on the left side it was vibrating with each of the very loud "clapping-like" clicks that were emitted into the air. After a week's experience with these noises she suddenly began a series of humanoid noises mixed with the clicks and the whistles. However, the clicks and the whistles are predominant. It is almost as if she is an uneducated dolphin who has barely had enough time to get a toe hold on her own language and has had no opportunity yet to get a good toe hold on ours. (Various reports are coming in from the staff that she has been hitting their hands rather abruptly and suddenly with her beak and opening her mouth at them. It is possible that she needs the teaching and the discipline of an older animal to teach her proper manners at this point.)

I think all animals think. But that again becomes a matter of definition. Some people who would want to put animals into a separate category feel they think, but not on the level of humans. But man is pretty egocentric about these things. He doesn't think anything corresponds to or thinks like him, and that's probably true. That doesn't make them a lower form necessarily. Maybe they haven't been able to conquer the earth and overcome environmental difficulties and fly airplanes, and all that sort of thing, but in another sort of way they seem to do very well. They are free. Peter Morgane

      These experiences illustrate the thesis that one can protect one's self and maintain one's ignorance by belittling disturbing experiences, or one can newly recapture sensitivity and be open-minded (even painfully so) and discover new facts. Discovery, in my experience, requires disillusionment first as well as later. One must be shaken in one's basic beliefs before the discovery can penetrate one's mind sufficiently to be detected. A certain willingness to face censure, to be a maverick, to question one's beliefs, to revise them, are obviously necessary. But what is not obvious is how to prepare one's own mind to receive the transmissions from the far side of the protective transparent wall separating each of us from the dark gulf of the unknown. Maybe we must realize that we are still babies in the universe, taking steps never before taken. Sometimes we reach out from our aloneness for someone else who may or may not exist. But at least we reach out, and it is gratifying to see our dolphins reach also, however primitively. They reach toward those of us who are willing to reach toward them. It may be that some day not too far distant we both can draw to an end the "long loneliness," as Loren Eiseley called it.

Dr. John C. Lilly, M.D.

From Mind in the Waters, A Book to Celebrate the Consciousness of Whales and Dolphins assembled by Joan McIntyre
John C. Lilly with JANUS Instruments

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