January 18

1953: Dr. John Lilly used electric stimulation to “map” brain locations that control body functions

Dr. John Lilly was a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who conducted experimental studies on monkeys in an effort to “map” the body’s functions controlled from various locations in the brain. He devised a method of pounding up to 600 tiny sections of hypodermic tubing into the skulls of monkeys, through which he could insert electrodes into the brain “to any desired distance and at any desired location from the cortex down to the bottom of the skull,” he later wrote. Using electric stimulation, Lilly discovered precise centers of the monkeys’ brains that caused pain, fear, anxiety, and anger. He also discovered precise, separate parts of the brain that controlled erection, ejaculation, and orgasm in male monkeys. Lilly found that a monkey, given access to a switch operating a correctly planted electrode, would reward himself with nearly continuous orgasms — at least once every 3 minutes — for up to 16 hours a day. (Marks. Manchurian Candidate, Ch. 8)

CIA and other intelligence agency officials requested a briefing. Dr. Lilly agreed only on the condition that the briefing and his work must remain unclassified, completely open to other investigators. The intelligence officials agreed reluctantly to his terms knowing that his openness would ruin the intelligence value of anything learned from him. But Dr. Lilly soon found it impossible to continue his work at the NIH because (a) his security clearance was tangled up in review; and (b) all other scientists at NIH had agreed to have their projects involving government intelligence agencies marked SECRET which meant access would require security clearance.

Furthermore, Dr. Lilly adhered to a personal ethics standard; the first human subject of any of his experiments would be he himself. In 1954, Dr. Lilly experimented with sensory deprivation and invented a special “tank” in which subjects floated in body-temperature water wearing a face mask that provided air but cut off sight and sound. According to his ethics, he and one colleague tested the consciousness-exploring water tank. Again, intelligence officials swooped down; their interest was in the use of his tank as an interrogation tool. Could involuntary subjects be placed in the tank and broken down to the point where their belief systems or personalities could be altered? Dr. Lilly realized that the intelligence agents were not interested in sensory deprivation for any of its potential positive benefits; he concluded that it was impossible for him to work at the NIH without compromising his principles.

Like Aldus Huxley Dr. Lilly found sensory deprivation to be a spiritually integrating experience for him personally. He considered himself to be a scientist who subjectively explored the far wanderings of the brain. Marks writes,

“In a series of private experiments, he pushed himself into the complete unknown by injecting pure Sandoz LSD into his thigh before climbing into the sensory-deprivation tank. When the counterculture sprang up, Lilly became something of a cult figure, with his unique approach to scientific inquiry — though he was considered more of an outcast by many in the professional research community.”

After resigning from NIH in 1958, he worked with dolphins; the movie The Day of the Dolphin with George C Scott is based on Dr. Lilly’s work.

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