Brilliant Animals: John C. Lilly, Ken Russell, and Cold War Behaviourism

25 October 2020
By Peter Sands

John C. Lilly is probably best known for inventing the sensory deprivation tank. Popularised in Ken Russell’s movie Altered States (1980), and more recently in Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016), Lilly’s tank was designed to suspend its subject in absolute darkness and without sensory input in order to discover new things about the human’s internal reality. In reference to Lilly’s own LSD-fuelled self-experiments in the tank, Russell’s protagonist, Dr Edward Jessup, sets out to uncover the essential secrets of the human’s genetic memory under the influence of a hallucinatory drug. Floating inside the tank, Jessup experiences an internal devolution to an early, primordial state of being and emerges physically altered as a monstrous feral hominid. As an image of the drives that supposedly lie suppressed within the psyche, Jessup’s experiment appears to strip back the fantasies of civilisation that enclothe the human, revealing an inner animality that lies dormant underneath.

Russell’s film uses Lilly’s invention to make a very particular point: the ways in which humans experience the world through a forward facing perspective obscures ways of being that exist imperceptibly within, behind or before the human. Indeed, Lilly himself, through use of the isolation tank, proposes a similar hypothesis. Rather than bringing about a reclaiming of an early model of animality, Lilly imagines the floating subject of the tank as tapping into ways of seeing — and ways of communicating — practiced already by cetaceans. In his book Communication Between Man and Dolphin: The Possibilities of Talking With Other Species (1978), Lilly writes that ‘It is time to recognise that the human species has maintained a human-centred, isolated existence on the planet Earth because of its failure to communicate with those of comparable brain size existing in the sea.’ Cetaceans — and, for Lilly, dolphins specifically — ‘have demonstrated a capacity to survive far longer than we have on this planet.’ In the context of a world threatened by nuclear disaster, dolphins, Lilly theorises, may provide ‘the ethics, laws, and facts’ necessary for long-term peaceful habitation of the planet. That is, if we can work out how to ask them.

Lilly’s use of dolphins to answer questions about human ways of being follows a long tradition of animal behaviour experimentation in cold war-era science. John B. Calhoun, in an experiment summarised in his article ‘Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population,’ set out to create a ‘utopia’ for the mice in question: food, water, sexual partners and space were provided in abundance. When the population of mice died out regardless, Calhoun coined the term ‘second death’ to describe the situation: without the ability to perform specifically formulated social roles, or ‘species specific activities,’ the mice died despite the fulfilment of their most fundamental needs. In a fairly different register, and as documented by Erika Lorraine Milam, the late 1960s saw Playboy magazine adopt a number of ideas from popular science and animal behaviourism in defining its vision of a ‘masculine ideal.’ As Milam notes, Playboy funded surveys of the sexual attitudes of American men, as well as publishing articles offering a scientific basis for ‘the evolutionary construction of men as sexual hunters.’ Indeed, Russell’s interpretation of Lilly’s research enters similar territory: when Jessup devolves into his ape-like form he manages to scale the walls of a zoo, hunting down, killing and eating a sheep within. Each of these examples, in their own way, follows the same formula in their construction of something approximating a fundamental ‘human nature.’ Animals, in these cases, are used to naturalise ideas about human creativity, masculinity, and meat consumption.

Lilly’s own writings, despite this context, set his work with dolphins apart from the popular scientific norm. Rather than using animals to bolster ideas of the ‘proper’ human subject as creative, white, male and carnivorous, Lilly emphasises the human’s own implication within complex ecological systems: the human is a ‘participant observer, a participant in his own society, and a participant in the ecology of the planet Earth.’ While, as D. Graham Burnett remarks, Lilly’s desire to communicate with dolphins using language falls firmly under the remit of ‘groovy science,’ it also represents a respect for types of knowledge unassimilable within rationalist and humanist structures of meaning. Dolphins, for Lilly, possess ‘Their [own] realities, defined in their own terms.’ Humans, after establishing communication with dolphins, should formulate ‘New interspecies laws, agreements, and interspecies treaties […] in cooperation with the cetaceans.’

The question must be posed: to what extent does Lilly’s work simply reproduce, in a different form, the kinds of violent knowledge practices commonly found in studies of animal behaviour? Despite his respect for dolphin intelligence, Lilly’s experiments rendered his dolphin subjects as bodies to be confined, studied, and dissected in the pursuit of interspecies knowledge. One experiment, in which Peter the dolphin lived in the flooded house of researcher Margaret Howe Lovatt, became embroiled in sensationalist accounts of interspecies sexuality (see Maria Lux’s art installation ‘Playing House’ (2018) Playing House – Additionally, Lilly’s focus on the brain size, intellectual capabilities and minds of dolphins casts his work in a troublingly transhumanist light: dolphins, in this sense, function as technologies that could unlock ways in which to augment the potentials of human ‘capability.’

In Philip K. Dick’s novel Dr Bloodmoney (1965), nuclear armageddon leads to the flourishing of ‘brilliant animals,’ as Dick describes them: cats that have developed their own language, dogs that can communicate with humans, and rats that are capable of ‘heroic deed[s].’ Far from reflecting any definitive change in ‘human nature,’ Dick’s brilliant animals occupy an ambivalent position in the narrative, displacing notions of something so straightforwardly universal as ‘human’ as a measure of ability. Dick’s character Stuart McConchie remarks that ‘Our relationship […] is different with animals now. It’s much closer; there isn’t the great gap between us and them that there was.’ In much the same vein, Lilly’s dolphins herald a scientific model no longer dependent upon a clear and monolithic separation between human/animal. Simultaneously radically de-anthropocentric and problematically couched in the language of intelligence, Lilly’s work unsettles the roots of behaviourism in favour of an uneasy more-than-human potentiality.


Altered States, dir. Ken Russell, Warner Bros., 1980.

D. Graham Burnett, ‘Adult Swim: How John C. Lilly Got Groovy (and Took the Dolphin With Him), 1957-1968’ in Groovy Science: Knowledge, Innovation, and American Counterculture, eds. D. Kaiser and W. P. McCray, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

John B. Calhoun, ‘Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 66 (1973), 80-88.

Philip K. Dick, Dr Bloodmoney, or, How We Got Along After The Bomb, (Boston: Mariner Books, 2012 [1965]).

John C. Lilly, Communication Between Man and Dolphin: The Possibilities of Talking With Other Species, (New York: Crown Publishers, 1978).

Erika Lorraine Milam, ‘Science of the Sexy Beast: Biological Masculinities and the Playboy Lifestyle’ in Groovy Science: Knowledge, Innovation, and American Counterculture, eds. D. Kaiser and W. P. McCray, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).