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Communicating with Other Intelligences

Humankind has long been intrigued with the idea of contacting and communicating with other intelligences. We've devised elaborate systems to probe outer space for signals that might be coming to us and informational plaques to identify our space probes to other intelligences. As for more earthly concerns, many studies have been made and are being made on communication in species other than humans - particularly the higher forms of life such as apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales - in an effort to crack their codes and establish communication with them. Only rudimentary lines of communication have been established to date, and as far as we know, no signals from outer space have been received. However, in trying to solve these theoretical problems we have learned more about our own communication processes and thought mechanisms.

There is the distinct possibility that we would have much to learn from extraterrestrial beings, and much to learn from the species that share this planet with us, if we only knew how to communicate with them.

In a remarkable series of studies that spanned a decade, John Lilly, MD, set out to do just that with dolphins. He chose dolphins primarily because the dolphin brain is similar to the human brain in both size and complexity and he felt they would be the logical first choice for trying to establish interspecies communication.

Dolphins communicate almost solely by sonic transmissions. They use sonic and ultrasonic waves to scan their surroundings and to identify objects by shape and distance, and they seem to be able to transmit information to each other. Lilly attempted to analyze and codify their underwater sounds in search of patterns that might indicate language. In another series of experiments, he studied the ability of dolphins to mimic human sounds (dolphins are able to vocalize out of the water). He thought that if dolphins could learn to communicate in the human mode as we were learning to understand their language, there would be a greater possibility for finding common ground.

I once asked Dr. John Lilly what he thought dolphins did with their large forebrains. Something else," he replied. I asked if there was any way I could get an inkling of what that "something else" was. He said, "Yes: swim with them." I did. It was "something else."—Roedy Green

After a lapse of several years, Lilly returned to his research, this time using a computer as a language interface. While he was not successful in establishing true interspecies communication, he worked in the full expectation of eventually doing so, to the mutual benefit of humans and dolphins. Lilly's work invites us to speculate on our own modes of communication. We humans receive at least 80 percent of our input visually; then, in order to communicate, we must translate our experience into words, which we then generally convey orally. For dolphins, the major input is aural, so they need not translate their experiences from one medium to another in order to communicate. Their communication is more efficient and accurate than ours, and less information is lost in the process. If we could communicate as directly as dolphins do, there would be much less misunderstanding and a greater degree of intimacy than we usually experience in our exchanges with each other. Communications would probably resemble those rare moments of contact we share with someone when minds seem to be joined and words are unnecessary.

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