The Strange World of Dolphin-Assisted Therapy

Where people got the idea dolphins could heal their children
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A dolphin (Reuters).

Dolphins are fascinating. Intelligent and interested in humans, the cetaceans have been part of the entertainment business since long before Sea World. In a strange twist, though, captive dolphins are now being pressed into service as psychological healers through a practice known as "dolphin-assisted therapy."

In an essay published today at Aeon, neuroscientist and dolphin researcher Lori Marino, takes us on a trip into a bizarre world in which desperate parents hope that having their autistic or developmentally delayed children spend time with dolphins will change them.

The idea has its roots in the research of John C. Lilly, a dolphin scientist and countercultural guru, who had some strange ideas about the powers of the species, such as they were telepathic. His methods were equally unorthodox. His team gave LSD to dolphins and, Marino delicately claims, Lilly "encouraged" a research assistant into sexual acts with a dolphin. Here, he describes one research project involving the drug ketamine in an interview gave at 76:

[T]he dolphin's life is probably as complicated as ours. But what about their spiritual life? Can they get out of their bodies and travel? Are they extraterrestrials? 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 in to the rank and I had a microphone near my head and an underwater speaker that went down into the dolphin tank. My microphone hit their loudspeaker under water. So I waited. Then I began to feel that I was in direct contact with them and as soon as I felt that one of them whistled, a long whistle, and 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 were not so blind. So we open up pathways to them with ketamine, with LSD, with swimming with them, with falling in love with them and them falling in love with us. All the non-scientific ways.

While some peer-reviewed studies seemed to show dolphin therapy caused improvements in children, Marino's review of the literature found every single one had severe methodological problems.

While not always promising a cure, DAT facilities clearly market themselves as offering real therapy as opposed to recreation. Under minimal standards, authentic therapy must have some relationship to a specific condition and result in measurable remedial effects. By contrast, DAT proponents cite evidence that is, more accurately, anecdotal, offering a range of explanations for its purported efficacy, from increased concentration to brainwave changes, to the positive physiological effects of echolocation (high-frequency dolphin sonar) on the human body. Parents of autistic children and others who appear to benefit from DAT believe that these explanations are scientifically plausible. The photos of smiling children and the emotional testimonials from once-desperate parents are hard to resist. Even those sceptical of DAT's scientific validity often just shrug and say: 'What's the harm?' In the worst-case scenario a child who typically knows little enjoyment and accomplishment in life can find joy, a little bit of self-efficacy and connection with others for what is sometimes the first time in his life. But amid all the self-justification, the question most often left out is: what about the dolphins?

And the dolphins, Marino argues, are self-aware, intelligent, and generally unhappy about their captivity. They die from "gastric ulcers, infections and other stress and immune-related diseases." All of which delivers the central tragedy of her essay. "I understand that desperate people will continue to visit DAT facilities for help with their own illnesses," she concludes. "Sadly, they may never realise that the dolphins they seek help from are likely to be as psychologically and physically traumatised as they are."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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