By John Bryson
Updated September 06, 1976 12:00 PM
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For more than three decades Dr. John Lilly has explored the inner recesses of man’s mind. Yet, in trying to trace the evolutionary origins of human communication, he became best known for his formative experiments with dolphins—13 years of research which were sensationalized in the 1974 Avco-Embassy film The Day of the Dolphin. (He unsuccessfully sued the studio, alleging plagiarism.)

Now, at 61, Lilly, a Malibu-based physician and trained psychoanalyst, is back to human guinea pigs—though he’s still not out of the water. His latest experiments involve the “isolation tank” which he devised for research into the workings of what he calls the “deep self.” (Among those who have immersed themselves for his work are Burgess Meredith, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, Daniel Ellsberg’s wife, Pat, and Lilly’s own third wife, Antonietta, 47. With Toni, an artist and therapist whom he met at the sulfur baths of Big Sur’s Esalen Institute, he has co-authored The Dyadic Cyclone (Simon and Schuster, $8.95), a sequel to his best-selling The Center of the Cyclone. Both books offer a veritable Malibu mudslide of science, poetry, religion and mysticism as well as advice on exercise, diet and sex. In his remote hillside home-cum-laboratory, Lilly pondered his latest efforts at tracing the freeways of the human psyche with John Bryson for PEOPLE.

What, precisely, is your so-called “isolation tank method”?

The idea is to separate yourself from society through the solitude and confinement of a scientifically controlled tank. There should be only 10 inches of water, heated to 93° F—just right for maintaining the proper brain temperature—with enough Epsom salts so that your hands, feet and head all float. Lying on your back, you can breathe quite comfortably and safely, freed from sight, sound, people and the universe outside. That way you can enter the universe within you.

What is the origin of the technique?

In 1954 there was an argument going on among neurophysiologists over whether or not the brain would sleep if all outside stimulation was removed. I was an eager young scientist pushing forward into regions of the unknown: the nervous system and the mind. The first year I used the tank, I proved that the notion the brain shuts off when removed from stimulation is sheer nonsense.

How many of these tanks are there in this country?

I’d say more than 200, some at universities and research institutes but mostly in private hands.

Do you recommend the tank for everyone as a method of self-discovery?

For most people, I think it would provide unique insights. Of course, there are exceptions. People with certain types of mental disorders should not use the method unless under professional supervision.

Isn’t it true that some people have had severe mental problems as a result of this experience?

That is bull. In spite of the bad reputation of coerced sensory deprivation experiments, the tank method has rarely led to panic, fear or intense pain. We’ve had a few cases of spontaneous, reversible claustrophobia develop temporarily in a few people. We have had only good results with the tank.

Wasn’t one of those people your wife?

Yes, she went into the tank one day and suddenly she had to get out. She scrambled up and pushed the lid of the tank so hard that the hinge broke. While lying there in the shallow water she had begun to recall her birth—the feeling of suffocation, the bright lights, the gasp of the first breath. It was too much for her. But there have been only one or two such incidents out of 450 people who have tried out the tank here.

Could the tank be used destructively for brainwashing?

You can alter someone’s beliefs in any number of ways—hanging them up by their thumbs, putting them in isolation, feeding them various drugs. Yes, I suppose it could be used in that way. But the idea of using the tank to scare the hell out of somebody and coerce them is mostly just romantic nonsense.

What is the longest period of time anyone has spent in the tank?

Louis Jolyon West, chairman of the department of psychiatry at UCLA, spent 16 straight hours in the tank, but not here.

How might the average person use the isolation process?

I personally find that the tank is an absolute necessity in order to recover during the day quickly and easily from overloads brought about by too much activity, too much exchange with other people. If I am worn out during the day, instead of taking a long nap, I go into the tank for half an hour. For example, one day recently I became exhausted shoveling gravel and decided to go into the tank. The day’s residues slowly disappeared. I did not go to sleep. I entered an abstracted state. There was no body, no external reality, only the floating, the darkness and the silence. I came out of the tank completely refreshed.

Do you think the isolation tank will ever become a widely popular fad like saunas and Jacuzzis?

To some extent, but I think its main use will be as a form of treatment for those who are handicapped physically. People with bad hearts who need rest but cannot get it in bed can get the rest they need in the tank. When I broke several bones in a bicycle accident recently, I went for five nights without sleep before turning to the tank in desperation. There I was free from pain—without drugs—for the first time since I had the accident. The reason: it frees up all the pain due to gravity.

Are there other therapeutic uses—say, in coping with psychological problems?

The tank is an excellent tool for getting rid of therapists and realizing that a lot of the responsibility for what happens to you resides with you. I went through psychoanalysis and I went through Gestalt. I went through encounter therapy and I went through mysticism, and on and on. I’ve done it all.

Is the tank superior to all of these?

Therapy is changing a bad set of conditions to a better set of conditions inside you. Insofar as I can make out, if one takes the responsibility for this process, then it can be done in the tank. If one needs the responsibility on somebody else, it can’t be done in the tank. And that’s where it’s at.

Would Freud get in your tank if he were alive?

I think Freud would use it for his own self-analysis. I think Jung would use it, too. They were both strong enough and independent enough to see the isolation tank as another important tool. I’m sure some of their followers wouldn’t, however, because their livelihood depends on charging people $50 an hour for therapy.

For all your arguing on behalf of isolation as a way of coming to grips with problems, don’t you state in your latest book that dependence is good?

I think interdependence is basic to survival. The unreal quality of people thinking that they are separate from each other or that they are somehow separate from their environment is certainly not going to insure survival.

Why do you liken the human condition to a cyclone, as in your book titles?

Actually I was wondering whether to use the word hurricane. There is the quiet place in the center of the storm—the eye. And in humans there is a quiet place in the center. Call it the “I.” There are times when you feel caught up in things which are beyond your own control, as in a hurricane or a cyclone. If you are able to retire deep inside yourself, you can find the quiet place which nobody can penetrate. This way you can isolate yourself in your deep inner core. That is the basis for transcendental meditation. But I think the isolation tank is probably the very best way to find one’s inner self.