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Lilly on Dolphins John C. Lilly, M.D.
Humans of the Sea
Published by Anchor Press/Doubleday in 1975
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


While reading Paul Watzlawick's How Real Is Real recently, I was taken aback by statements he made about how dolphins communicate. (Note: My ideas of how dolpins communicate have been embodied in a novel, The Spizznet File). I had been studying the new computer field known as Virtual Reality in which eyephones containing small television sets focus images on human retinas and the result is a filling of the field of vision to create a semblance of reality. The sudden juxtaposition of dolphin communication and Virtual Reality (VR) led me to visualize how dolphins communicate. In a flash of insight I saw that dolphins create a VR with their vocal apparatus - a visual virtual reality similar to the VR's created using computers. Just as a human spinning tales around a campfire might conjure up images of times long past - a dolphin telling a story will conjure up images in its delphinine listeners, but the delphinine images will be external visual, whereas in humans the conjured images are internal visual.

The triggering passage for me in the Watzlawick book was the story of the fishing boats with the harpoon guns and the killer whales. Apparently some killer whales, who witnessed the episode had notified nearby killer whales that a fishing boat had killed one of their pod with a harpoon gun. All the whales, immediately after the killing, began to avoid only the fishing boats with the harpoon guns, and to continue to approach identical boats without the harpoon gun. The author made a point about the degree of the killer whales's intellectual capacity as demonstrated by their transmission of the harpoon distinction auditorially. He assumed the description was a verbal description as humans know it. What I saw in my mind was the whales transmitting a visual image of the harpooning itself. The whales receiving the image would have had no trouble distinguishing the harpoon boats from the fishing boats because they would have just seen, as if on a TV news report, the killing boat and its harpoon in action. Thus no verbal, linear analytical description is necessary to account for the communication, only a holistic pictorial movie reel (transmitted auditorially, of course).

Did the dolphin researchers suspect the etiology of delphinine communication to be visual transmission of visual pictures? That question sent me scurrying to this book in my library. It contains all of Lilly's then published works on dolphins including the two books, Man and Dolphin and The Mind of the Dolphin in addition to a lecture and several journal articles. There were subtle hints that I picked up that shed insight on my hypothesis, but offered little insight to the Lilly researchers who operated on a different hypothesis. For example: on page 69,

Of course, he was also using his sonar with the typical "putt-putting" and "creaking-door" sounds. These sounds were always directed toward any new object thrust in the pool and were always made during a feeding procedure.

Exactly what one would expect if these sounds were to create sound images of the new objects and their food. These are most likely to be "speak-see" sounds. What they hear back from their environment we might call "hear-see" sounds. If we make the further hypothesis that dolphins can mimic "hear-see" sounds (let's call that process "picture-speak"), then we complete the communication loop. Dolphins are then able to relate events from other time-space coordinates to other dolphins in the following way: 1. They speak-see, 2.They hear-see the responses from their surroundings, 3. They remember these sounds and 4. Later they picture-speak the sounds to other dolphins. (I use dolphin as a generic term to include all cetaceans such as whales, killer whales, and the several dolphin species.)

From page 239,

In this previous study we showed that dolphins exchange sounds very politely. When one is talking, the other one keeps quiet. ... We also showed that the two kinds of sonic exchanges do not correspond in time, i.e., they can be talking with whistles and talking with click trains, the whistles and the clicks completely out of phase with one another. They can be using the silence of the whistle exchange with a click exchange and filling the silences of click exchange with a whistle exchange, and thus each are polite in the same mode. Thus one pair of dolphins talking can sound like two pairs of dolphins talking, one pair exchanging clickings, the other pair exchanging whistles.

This dual communication mode may represent each dolphin performing a "speak-see" operation to see the other dolphin and a "picture-speak" operation to communicate with the other dolphin. Thus the necessity for the "politeness" comes from the need to take turns talking and seeing even though in each dolphin the talking and seeing proceeds simultaneously.

Again from page 239,

A right and a left phonation apparatus is demonstrated in the dolphin's nasal passages. Thus a given dolphin can carry on a whistle conversation with his right side and a clicking conversation with his left side and do the two quite independently with the two halves of his brain.

If there is a lateralization of brain function in the cetacean species as in the human species, we might expect to find that the whistle conversation from the right side originates from the left brain and contains the "speak-see" channel that allows the dolphin to see his companion and his surroundings. The clicking conversation originating from his left side we would expect to originate from the right brain and to contain the "picture-speak" channel of communication that permits the dolphin to create a virtual reality around the other dolphin. Since each dolphin is creating a VR in turn, there is a need for the taking of turns, since it would be impolite to modify someone's picture while they were speaking it.

From page 250, 251, and 252,

The dolphin receives almost as much information through his ear as we do from our eye. ... The two phonation apparatuses can be linked one to the other to give "stereo phonation." ...We have found that the dolphin has a third emitter, especially constructed for the production of his ultrasonic beam.

Thus we might question if the "speak-see" operation is a stereo-location process and the "picture-speak" operation is a non-stereo process. That would provide a distinction of the virtual and non-virtual realities.

On page 253, Lilly gets very close to the VR hypothesis,

With proper techniques (hypnosis, drugs, etc.) we can program or compute an "acoustic space" into the "visual space."

On page 259,

...his predominant acoustic life generates acoustic models where ours generates visual ones.

I would change that to say that the dolphin's acoustic life generates visual models similar to our subjective experience of our visual model. The difference is that the dolphin gets the same input from his ears that we get from our eyes. The bandwidth of the acoustic information in dolphins is so close to the bandwidth of visual information in humans that the subjectively created experiences in both species can have similar quality and resolution.

On page 279,

...his big computer (brain) is also more acoustically orientated than ours; very large masses of it are given over to acoustic computations, even as in ours we are given over to visual computations. The sperm whale's re-creations are probably complete. He probably can re-create this spatial distribution of the sounds. He probably can also replay the complex interrelationship between the sound simultaneously in pitch, in space, in loudness.

Lilly does not speak here directly of re-creating the visual virtual reality by the sperm whale by vocalization, but again he gets very close to doing so.

On page 295,

Rapid automatic computation of the signals coming from the two ears would be computed into constructions and pictures of the scenes around us. We would "see" our friends, the shape of the bottom, where the waves were, the height of the waves, the presence of fish, and any possible lurking enemies.

Once more Lilly graphically describes the "speak-see" or phonic visualization process of the cetaceans. I propose to use the word "phisualize" as a verb to denote the process of creating a visual picture of a dolphin's surroundings by his sending out of sound waves and receiving them back. Humans visualize with their eyes, and dolphins phisualize with their ears. For the "picture-speak" process I propose the word "spizualize," a combination of "speak" and "visualize." Spizualize means to create virtual realities by speaking. This is an operation dolphins can perform but humans cannot. Our construction of VR machines is our attempt to spizualize through the use of machinery. The VR machines will likely make it possible for humans to communicate to cetaceans in the near future.

On page 299,

We can imagine a dolphin suit with built-in, three dimensional, sonic and ultrasonic emitters and receivers and with built-in streamlining. We can develop the proper program in ourselves to model the dolphin's well-developed programs.

With the advent of VR and the high speed computers of the 1990's the realization of Lilly's vision is close at hand.

Finally, on page 321, Lilly suggests how dolphins converse using all their acoustic apparatuses,

All of these various acoustic concepts (and many others) in some way or another must be used in the dolphin's construction of his language. When a dolphin wishes to talk about an object at a given distance with another dolphin and wishes to describe how that object moved and at what velocities, he can do it merely by transmitting the proper frequency pattern in his clicks and whistles. In other words, he can converse about moving down from the surface of the sea toward the bottom, he can converse about fish of a given size at given distances, sharks of a given size and all of these other matters, in a frequency-time -intensity domain which we would have to convert into visual images. It seems to me that this can become a sort of Rosetta stone for proceeding on an analysis of "delphinese."

Dolphins live in a world that they navigate by means of a sophisticated sonar system. What we don't know is the subjective experience of a dolphin. What does a dolphin experience when it receives the bounced-back stereo sound waves from its surroundings? Join me in an imaginal view of a dolphin's experience. The dolphin, living in murky sea water, has little use for its visual apparatus (eyes) except for close up inspection. This is handy because close up is probably where the sonar signals would be so distorted as to be of little use. The dolphin sees, i.e., constructs a 3-D visual world around itself, by means of its sonar signals exactly as humans do with electromagnetic waves (light) bounced off of its surroundings. Thus a dolphin sees with its ears. This much was suspected by dolphin researchers, Lilly in particular, as the quotes from his book above show.

One key to understanding dolphin speech is to understand that seeing is an input operation only for humans, coming into the eyes, being processed by the brain and constructing a 3-D visual world out there with the received information. Thus human eyes are visual receptacles only. The dolphin's ears and phonation apparatuses provide it with both receptacles and transmitters of visual information. Thus the dolphin can both receive and transmit pictures. This is the core of my hypothesis about dolphin communication.

The early chapters of Lilly's book describe what is known about dolphin speech. The important thing I noticed was the increased bandwidth of dolphin speech over human speech. Did the bandwidth of the dolphin speech and hearing apparatus and its connection into the brain approximate that of the visual apparatus of humans and its connection into the brain? Yes, the pathways and the brain area devoted to auditory processing in dolphins matches that of the visual processing of humans (page 253). One might say that the dolphin can hear as well as we see and see (with its eyes) as well as we hear because of the reversal in the sizes of the human and the dolphin visual and auditory brain cortices. What the dolphins have is a visual output capability using their auditory apparatus, and what we have is an non-visual auditory output. Watzlawick said that interactive communication between humans and dolphins was impossible because of the need to stretch out dolphin speech to reduce its bandwidth so that humans could hear and have a chance of comprehending. In fact, much of the research to date on analyzing dolphin speech has assumed that they communicate auditory information in the same linear, analytical form as humans do and this assumption has led to many dead-ends. I realized that humans can easily handle high bandwidth data if it is presented in a visual form. The example of television (high bandwidth) and radio (low bandwidth) may help explain. Using the same assumption of the early dolphin researchers, one would say that TV signals have to be stretched out in time in order to convert them into radio signals so humans would have a chance to comprehend them. What one really needs is to design a TV receiver to comprehend TV signals, not to convert them into radio signals.

Lilly's book is full of data on the research done to convert "TV signals into radio signals" and attempts to interpret the resultant radio signals as human speech. When the researcher tried to teach the dolphins to speak human speech, what they got was the equivalent of a TV set learning to blink on and off with the rhythm of the word "hello." The dolphins with their extensive training had learned to mimic the sound "hello" by creating pictures in a sequence that the researcher interpreted as "hello" with their human ears and oscilloscope traces. The dolphins probably wondered why the humans didn't see the pictures they were speaking when they formed their mimic of "hello."

Consider a possible etiology of dolphin speech. The baby dolphin is exposed to its mother's voice. It "hear-sees" the word "fish" as a fish in front of its beak and then compares the "fish" word image with the "heard-seen" image of an actual fish. This is like the human baby whose mother says "apple" and shows the baby an apple. The difference is the dolphin sees the fish when the mother says "fish" and eventually learns to say "fish" and thus to create its own picture of a fish with its word. Thus begins the dolphin's training to "hear-see" and "picture-speak." Just as human babies learn to mimic the sounds in its environment, so do dolphin young. The sounds they mimic create pictures, however, which they and other dolphins can see. We can presume that the visual presentation of a spoken picture is somehow distinguishable from the picture being received from its current environment. Just as humans can focus between two conversations, alternately paying attention to one and then the other speaker even though both are talking at the same time. A human can watch Rich Little imitate George Burns and still know it's not George Burns. Some perceptual clues must exist to allow dolphins to distinguish a spoken environment from a real one. Some good story-telling dolphins may lead their enraptured listeners to tune into their story so much as to obliterate their real surroundings for a time. The dolphin's basic survival instincts, however, would cause some portion of their attention to be alert for the approach of predators or food.

Paradoxically, my hypothesis gives less credit for intelligence than previous researchers have because of their tendency to anthropomorphize their expectations and hypotheses about dolphin speech. This tendency to interpret the features of another species in terms of the features of our species was pointed out by Lilly many times in his writings and he has consistently made conscious efforts to transcend these pitfalls. My hope is to seed new research into dolphin communication by my hypothesis and its suggestions for new avenues for research and investigation. I saw the first picture of my recent granddaughter through dolphin eyes. The ultrasonic scan made by the doctor through the walls of her mother's midsection gave me an image of her similar to what a dolphin would have seen if swimming up to the mother in a pool. If we create ultrasonic transducers with similar operating characteristics as the dolphin's, rig up receivers for the reflected signals, and train a neural network on a computer to create recognizable visual signals via a set of eyephones and a human neural net trainer, we have the possibility to create dolphin-like phisualization that is humanly perceptible.

The next step would be to train the neural net on dolphin phonations. Once the human can perceive the same things in a tank that dolphins do, then the dolphins will be able to spizualize (picture-speak) to humans. That would constitute the first instance of trans-species communication. And unlike the primitive attempts to teach apes to communicate in sign language, this new dolphin communication will have been achieved, not by crude attempts to teach animals to mimic our human communication, but by teaching ourselves to learn to communicate the way the animals do. Such a breakthrough may bring in its wake the first documentation of the history of the world as recorded and passed down from generation to generation of cetaceans.

The new scope of understanding our sturdy ecology on a sturdy planet will certainly expand the horizons for mankind and species of all kinds. The next breakthrough would come in the form of communication back to the dolphins by spizualization. The creation of virtual reality software is the key to producing such communication, because to picture-speak one must have a convenient method for creating pictures to be transformed into acoustical signals recognizable by the dolphins. The dolphins' intense efforts to learn our crude acoustic speech indicate a willingness to learn that would certainly lubricate the process of teaching them to learn to understand our crude spizualizations until we learn to refine them. The resulting inter-species cooperation can help us to farm and mine the ocean floor in a joint venture with willing dolphins, who can explore the ocean's depths and return detailed pictures to us of their travels. When that day comes, man will have domesticated the wildest animal of all, man himself.

~^~^~^~~^~^~~^~^~^~^ Other Reviews on Dolphins ~^~~^~^~^~~^~^~~
Here are links to other books I read and reviewed during my research into dolphin and interspecies communication.

1. Dolphin Dreamtime by Jim Nollman on The Art and Science of Interspecies Communication

2. Dolphin Conferences by Warren D. Thomas and Daniel Kaufman

3. Dolphins Telepathy and Underwater Birthing by Timothy Wyllie

4. Dolphin Boy by Roy Meyers

And here's a link to the novel I wrote about interspecies communication with dolphins:
5. The SPIZZNET File --- which book can be read on-line or a hardback or paperback copy may be ordered from any bookstore.

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