John Lilly: psychedelic scientist
CJ Stone reveals how a neuroscientist's research into consciousness lead him to take vast quantities of LSD and ketamine in his invention - the first floatation tank
The province of the mind
There’s an interesting video on YouTube. It’s called “The Scientist: John C. Lilly.”
It is the recording of a TV programme which must have come out some time in the late 80s. The programme is called “Thinking Allowed.” It has a very simple format. A psychologist interviewer called Jeffrey Mishlove is sitting face-to-face with his subject - in this case, Dr. Lilly, the “Scientist” of the title – and asking him questions.
Dr. Lilly presents an odd spectacle. He is dressed in a wide-collared safari suit of some brown, shiny material, and has a coonskin cap on his head, of the kind that Davy Crockett wore. He has sharp, angular features and a little beard and is wearing an earring in each ear. It’s hard to say how old he is in the video. He is sprightly and perceptive-looking with a warm, sceptical smile. He could be anywhere from his 50s to his 80s. In fact, he is 73.
You wonder if the costume is deliberately chosen. Dr. Lilly has often been described as a pioneer. You can see him as a sort of psychic frontiersman. Like Davy Crockett, he set out to explore the outer reaches of a brand new continent. His writings are like the reports-back of an adventurer in the New World. He is describing new flora and fauna, mapping new territories, meeting new cultures, learning new languages, facing new dangers, crossing new barriers, in a pioneering effort to give us some glimpses of what this strange new continent is like.
The programme is hard to follow as Dr. Lilly speaks in a barely comprehensible drawl. Fortunately there is a transcript available, so you can watch the programme, and read the words at the same time. It is worth doing this as it makes for a good introduction to Dr. Lilly’s world view.
His most famous statement – which he repeats in the interview, and throughout his writings – is as follows:
“In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits. These limits are to be found experimentally and experientially. When so found these limits turn out to be further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind there are no limits. However, in the province of the body there are definite limits not to be transcended.”
So that is the place that Dr. Lilly is exploring: the inner continent he refers to as “the province of the mind”.
The human biocomputer
Of course he isn’t the only person ever to have crossed over into this realm, nor the only person to have returned with reports of what he found there. What makes him a little different is that he is a very rare breed indeed: a man who combines scientific rigour, scientific objectivity, with a deep-seeking mysticism, and a willingness to go as far as it is humanly possible in the exploration of the furthest reaches of human consciousness.
It is worth keeping the statement in mind as we begin to explore his work. Beliefs are working tools for Dr. Lilly, and he adopts them and then discards them as necessary. This is a radical form of scepticism in which even the most basic assumptions about the human condition are questioned. But the strangest thing of all is not so much what the statement says, as the context in which it was originally made.
The first time the public would have heard it was in a book called Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer published in 1968. The book has recently been re-released, and is available on Amazon (see right).
It is very dense and difficult to read. This is deliberate. Its first appearance was as a scientific report on research carried out on behalf of the National Institute of Mental Health in the period from 1964 to 1966. In fact Dr. Lilly was the head of a major research programme with American government funding. He had a large department working for him. He was looking into the relationship between the brain and the mind. As part of his research he had developed a very thin electrode which could be inserted into the brain, and had discovered an electrical waveform, known as the Lilly Wave, which, when sent down the electrode, could be used to stimulate the brain without causing physical damage. He was experimenting on monkeys and dolphins. By this means he had shown that by stimulating various parts of the brain he could elicit particular responses, such as fear, anxiety, pleasure, sexual arousal etc.
There is a memorable scene in his autobiography where he is brought before a panel consisting of the various United States intelligence agencies who show a rather unhealthy interest in his work.
Later he finds out that they are planning to develop it as a form of weaponry, stimulating the brains of captive dolphins in order to control them remotely to use as living torpedoes, a scenario which is played upon in one of the two films which are based upon his life, The Day of the Dolphin (the second is Altered States). But actually, by the time of the report, he had long since abandoned this area of research and had launched into other, much more unconventional pursuits.
Interspecies communication: dophins and beyond
The reason he had abandoned the research is that he had had a revelation. He now believed that dolphins were an ancient form of intelligence on this planet, equal to human beings - “more advanced, but in a different way” - and had begun work in interspecies communication: that is in talking to dolphins. He described dolphins as ETs from Earth. He said, “when one considers that these beings have had brains as developed and more so than humans, and had them for perhaps 50-100 million years longer, they merit the highest regard by us.”
It is a measure of how serious this research was taken by the scientific establishment at the time that in the early 60s Dr Lilly was invited to a conference supported by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council. The conference was about the possibility of contact with extraterrestrial life-forms. Dr Lilly’s work was considered important because he was already attempting to communicate with non-human life-forms on this planet. It was understood that some of the problems he encountered would be of use when considering the possibility of communication with beings from other planets too.
At the same time he was also undertaking another, parallel, research programme.
In 1954 Dr Lilly had invented the floatation tank – also known as the isolation tank - in order to experiment with aspects of sensory deprivation. He had continued with this particular research throughout the 50s and into the early 60s, immersing himself in the floatation tank in his laboratory for extended periods of time.
Also, by this time, there was an explosion of research into the effects of the molecule lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate, LSD-25, on the human mind. At a certain point Dr. Lilly had decided to begin experiments with this too.
In those days there was a very pure pharmaceutical form of LSD available from the Sandoz corporation, and Dr. Lilly applied to get hold of some of this. His request was granted. One wonders, now, what the American government and the Sandoz corporation thought he was doing with the substance. Probably they thought he was giving it to his dolphins. In fact he was taking it himself.
The first two times he tried it, it was in the recognised way, as it was practiced at the time, with a trusted guide on hand to help him, in safe surroundings, but the third time he used it, it was in the isolation tank back at his lab.
This is where Dr. Lilly’s research begins to stray into the seriously unconventional.
Lilly's five beliefs: trips from the isolation tank
What Dr. Lilly does is to program himself with certain assumptions, and then to test them out in the isolation tank with LSD.
This is dealt with in a section of the book called Experiments on Basic Metaprograms of Existence, as follows:
Basic Belief No. 1: Assume that the subject’s body and brain can operate comfortably isolated without him paying any attention to it. This means that Dr. Lilly was able to park his body for extended periods of time, to leave it, and to go exploring the universe.
Basic Belief No. 2: The subject sought beings other than himself, not human, in whom he existed and who control him and other human beings. What this refers to are encounters with alien beings at different levels of existence, from the inconceivably huge, to beings of a more human dimension, some of whom are manipulating human consciousness and human existence for particular purposes. Lilly uses the term supra-self-metaprograms to describe them, but what he is actually referring to are alien beings from other dimensions and other universes, as well as the equivalent of the angels and demons of mythology.
Basic Belief No. 3: The subject assumed the existence of beings in whom humans exist and who directly control humans. In this assumption the human is entirely subject to programming by outside beings, who have no regard for the feelings of the subject they are performing their experiments upon. In a later book Lilly wrote up these encounters under the title “A Guided Tour of Hell” and described the experience as Burning Karma.
Basic Belief No. 4: One set of basic beliefs can be subsumed under the directions seek those beings whom we control and who exist in us. In this model there are implanted programs which have an autonomous existence inside of us. What he is referring to here is the existence of hidden motivational energies imposed upon us by our parents, by society, by our schooling, by encounters with the world-at-large at a very young age, which Dr. Lilly is attempting to incorporate into his present-day consciousness.
Basic Belief No. 5: Experiments were also done upon movements of self forwards and back in spacetime. This speaks for itself. By using these techniques Dr Lilly says he was able to project himself backwards and forwards in time, into a pre-human and a post-human existence. He was able to push himself back into his personal history to a time before his birth, and into the far-flung reaches of the future.
I think you can see that, as government research programmes go, this one was highly unusual.
In the two years from 1964 to 1966 Dr. Lilly, under the auspices of a National Institute of Mental Health research programme, entered an isolation tank some 20 times, having taken very large doses of pure, unadulterated LSD-25 intravenously, where he conducted thought experiments upon himself. It was the results of these experiments which he wrote up in the form of Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer and presented as a monograph to his bosses at the institute.
The basic theory is presented in the title. We are human biocomputers, programmed beings. As he says in the book, “each of us may be our programs, nothing more, nothing less.”
It’s a radical concept, and in a single imaginative leap it resolves the mind-brain dichotomy. If the brain is the hardware, then the mind is the software, of a sophisticated, complex, ancient biocomputer. There are layers of programmes, from the lowest, to the highest: from the genetic, to the instinctive, to the subconscious, to the conscious, to the supra-conscious and beyond. The “Metapogramming” of the title refers to these higher levels of consciousness. At the heart of the biocomputer is the self, which Dr. Lilly refers to as the Self-Metaprogrammer.
In his book, The Centre of the Cyclone: Looking into Inner Space he is much more straightforward about what he was actually experiencing in the isolation tank. In particular he explains what he means by beings other than himself, not human, in whom he existed and who control him and other human beings in Basic Belief No. 2.
These are his “guides” which he talks about having met at several points in his life, either under threat of death, or in the isolation tank.
In The Centre of the Cyclone he describes them as follows:
“These two guides may be two aspects of my own functioning at the supraself level. They may be entities in other spaces, other universes than our consensus reality. They may be helpful constructs, helpful concepts that I use for my own future evolution. They may be representatives of an esoteric hidden school. They may be concepts functioning in my own human biocomputer at the supraspecies level. They may be members of a civilisation a hundred thousand years or so ahead of ours. They may be a tuning in on two networks of communication of a civilisation way beyond ours, which is radiating information throughout the galaxy.”
It is a measure of Dr. Lilly’s radical scepticism that he doesn’t attempt to impose his interpretations on them. The guides are always presented as “maybes”. Are they angels? Maybe. Are they extraterrestrial beings? Maybe. Or are they just “helpful concepts”? And the answer to this is maybe too.
There are several encounters with these beings throughout his work. In some of the books he refers to the meetings as “The Conference of Three Beings.” The third being is himself, of course: or rather he is the “controller” of the “earthside agent” called John Lilly.
In the Centre of the Cyclone he describes one particular trip he undertook, with the guides nearby as unseen presences. “I am out beyond our galaxy, beyond galaxies as we know them. Time has apparently speeded up 100 billion times. The whole universe collapses into a point. There is a tremendous explosion and out of the point on one side comes positive matter and positive energies, streaking into the cosmos at fantastic velocities. Out of the opposite side comes antimatter streaking off into the opposite direction. The universe expands to its maximum extent, recollapses, and expands three times. During each expansion the guides say, ‘Man appears here and disappears there.’ All I can see is a thin slice for man. I ask, ‘Where does man go when he disappears until he is ready to appear again?’ They say, ‘That is us.’”
Later he gives the guides a name. He calls them ECCO. This stands for Earth Coincidence Control Office. It is also Italian for “This is it”. Later again he developed a whole complex scenario around them.
In his later years he began experimenting with ketamine. It seems he became addicted to it. He was injecting ketamine on an hourly basis for weeks on end.
The reason he started taking it in the first place is that he was subject to regular migraine attacks. When he was first given the drug it relieved the migraine. Gradually, by the use of ketamine, he was able to rid himself of the migraine attacks altogether. The price he paid for this were several close brushes with death and his rejection by the scientific community.
He used ketamine on an almost non-stop basis for 13 months altogether, during which time he entered a strange, paranoid world. In this world, ECCO were seen as “good” agents, but they were opposed by an evil opposite, called the solid-state entity (SSE).
The story is very similar to the Terminator films.
Computers were taking over the world. At some point in the future they had developed into a single, conglomerate entity. Their needs were different than the human. The human needs warmth and water, whereas the solid-state entity needs coldness and dryness. By the end of the 21st century Man was confined to domed enclosures controlled by the entity. By the end of the 23rd century the entity had removed the entire atmosphere from planet Earth. By the end of the 26th century the entity was in contact with other such entities, and was using the planet earth, now devoid of carbon based life, to travel throughout the galaxy.
So convinced was Dr. Lilly by this scenario that at one point he resolved to tell the government about it. He rang the White House asking to speak to the president. The person on the other end asked what he wanted to speak to about?
“I wish to speak to him about a danger to the human race involving atomic energy and computers.”
Needless to say, he didn’t get to speak to the president.
These later experiments with ketamine are unfortunate, as they diminish his reputation as a scientific observer. He was several times hospitalised during the period of intensive use of the drug and only stopped taking it in the end after a near-fatal accident, which he attributed to the intervention of his guides at ECCO.
These days Dr. Lilly is an almost forgotten figure. There is something quaint and dated about his writing. For instance, he uses the term “far out” a lot. In fact, it might reasonably be assumed that the expression originates with Dr. Lilly. In his case it can be taken quite literally. He is certainly travelling to some “far out” places, on the edge of consciousness, as well as the edge of the universe.
But we can also see him as a sort of precursor to the New Age. His work with dolphins (which continues to this day), his in-depth explorations of consciousness, his invention, and persistent use, of the floatation tank, his communication with his guides and with other extraterrestrial entities, his encounters with various therapies, all of this makes him the original cosmic psychonaut.
As one of his collaborators on the dolphin project, Jennifer Yankee Caulfield, said of him:
“There were those who thought he was brilliant, and there were those who thought he was insane. I, of course, thought he was a little bit of both.”
He died on September 30th 2001 aged 86.
A message from ECCO via Dr. Lilly
To all humans: If you wish to control coincidences in your own life on the planet Earth, we will cooperate and determine those coincidences for you under the following conditions:
1) You must know/assume/simulate our existence in ECCO.
2) You must be willing to accept our responsibility for control of your coincidences.
3) You must exert your best capabilities for your survival programs and your own development as an advancing/advanced member of ECCO's earthside corps of controlled coincidence workers. You are expected to use your best intelligence in this service.
4) You are expected to expect the unexpected every minute, every hour of every day and of every night.
5) You must be able to maintain conscious/thinking/ reasoning no matter what events we arrange to happen to you. Some of these events will seem cataclysmic/catastrophic/overwhelming: remember stay aware, no matter what happens/apparently happens to you.
6) You are in our training program for life: there is no escape from it. We (not you) control the long-term coincidences; you (not we) control the shorter-term coincidences by your own efforts.
7) Your major mission on earth is to discover/create that which we do to control the long-term coincidence patterns: you are being trained on Earth to do this job.
8) When your mission on planet Earth is completed, you will no longer be required to remain/return there.
9) Remember the motto passed to us:
"Cosmic Love is absolutely Ruthless and Highly Indifferent: it teaches its lessons whether you like/dislike them or not."
John Lilly speaking
Books by John C Lilly
Man and Dolphin 1961
The Dolphin in History 1963
The Mind of the Dolphin 1968
Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer 1967, 1968
The Center of the Cyclone 1972
Lilly on Dolphins 1975
Simulations of God: The Science of Belief 1956, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1969, 1975
The Dyadic Cyclone (with Toni Lilly) 1976
The Deep Self 1977
The Scientist 1988, 1997
Communication between Man and Dolphin 1978
John Lilly, so far... (with Francis Jeffery) 1990
Tanks for the Memories 1995
Films based on Dr Lilly's life
John Lilly links
- John C. Lilly - Wikipedia
John Cunningham Lilly (January 6, 1915 – September 30, 2001) was an American physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, psychonaut, philosopher and writer.
- John C. Lilly, M.D.
Dr. John C. Lilly, M.D. (1915-2001 physician and psychoanalyst specializing in biophysics, neurophysiology, electronics, computer theory, and neuroanatomy, inventor of The Isolation Tank
- Erowid John Lilly Vault
Information about John Lilly, including publications, photos, and links
- Erowid John Lilly Vault : Omni Interview
An interview with John Lilly by Judith Hooper for Omni Magazine in Jan 1983.
- John Lilly, Ketamine and the Entities from ECCO by Adam Gorightly
- Association for Cultural Evolution: Obituary
In Loving Memory of John Cunningham Lilly, M.D. January 6, 1915-September 30, 2001
- Amazon Customer Reviews: Simulations of God: The Science of Belief
Reviews of Lillys book Simulations of God.
The floatation experience
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