Dr. Dolphin

Why does swimming with dolphins help humans heal? A computer-wielding "neurohacker" may have found the answer.

For more resources on dolphin-human interaction, see our resource guide.

David Cole knows that people consider him a little odd. Cole spends much of his free time swimming with dolphins, and he has enough perspective to realize that this makes him, by most people's standards, eccentric. He doesn't mind.

Cole, a 28-year-old computer scientist, lives about half an hour south of Los Angeles. With excitable gray eyes and long brown hair in ringlets, he looks a little like a youthful Michael Bolton. Cole works for a computer hardware manufacturer, but in his spare time he heads the AquaThought Foundation, a cadre of computer wizards, doctors, and naturalists researching "dolphin-assisted therapy."

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For about two decades, physical therapists and psychologists have argued that swimming with dolphins can help the sick and handicapped. Dolphin-assisted therapy seems to accelerate the vocal and physical development of autistic and mentally retarded children, for example. Some researchers claim that dolphin swims also boost the human immune system. Most proponents of the therapy say it helps patients' psychological well-being; the dolphins distract them from their suffering.

But Cole doesn't buy this conventional wisdom. He rejects the idea that dolphins make humans feel better simply by making them happy. That's what clowns are for. Cole believes that swimming with dolphins can have a profound physiological effect on humans. The health of your immune system, the state of your brain, the makeup of your cells--these things, Cole believes, can be radically altered by dolphins.

To the layperson, all this might sound a little nutty. (Acquaintances who knew I was working on this article kept making "Flipper" jokes.) But then, black holes and cloning and artificial intelligence seemed nutty, too--except to the people who believed in them, and who turned one day from daydreamers into visionaries.

A self-described "neurohacker," Cole is a new kind of scientist: a layperson who studies dolphins and neurology not with a degree in marine biology or medicine but with a computer. Like any scientific novelty, Cole isn't always taken seriously. He gets a lukewarm and sometimes hostile reception from the practitioners of orthodox medicine. "It's way too esoteric for a lot of them," he admits.

On the other end of the spiritual spectrum, Cole has to deal with New Agers, some of whom argue that dolphins are really angels or extraterrestrials sent to enlighten humans. "When you look at alternative medicine," Cole says, "New Agers have always been there, drawing discredit to everything in that realm. But there's no replacement for scientific method."

With that, Cole asks me to try Cyberfin, a "virtual reality interaction" he invented to simulate swimming with dolphins. Eventually he hopes to make Cyberfin realistic enough to substitute for the real thing, helping humans who can't afford a dolphin swim and obviating the need for captive dolphins.

Cole has fashioned his prototype from a converted flotation tank in his garage. Three-D goggles strapped around my head, I lie down on a water mattress inside the tank. Directly overhead is a television monitor; ambient, surreal music pulses from speakers. I feel a little silly, like I'm about to fight the Red Baron, but I try to keep an open mind.

The screen lights up, and suddenly I'm floating in a pool. Two dolphins cavort in the water, zipping by one side of me, a stream of bubbles in their wake. Their whirs and clicks surround me. As I watch, my skepticism fades into curiosity and wonder. One of them swims directly up to my face, and instinctively I shake my head, thinking I'm about to be bumped. Then, with a flip of its tail, the dolphin disappears.

Ordinarily, I would never admit this. But I find myself hoping that it will come back soon.

Cole grew up in Winter Park, Fla., not far from NASA. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 1988, he founded a software company called Studiotronics. A year later, Cole hooked up with a group that was conducting dolphin-assisted therapy with cancer patients. They told Cole that the dolphins seemed to have a profound effect on the mental states of their patients; Cole offered to perform neurological tests to see what was going on.

"At first I thought our equipment was not working," Cole remembers. "We were using a fairly conventional statistical evaluation of EEG--'This is your brain, this is your brain on dolphins.' The level of change was like nothing I'd ever seen."

Essentially, Cole found a far greater harmony between the left and right sides of the brain after a subject swam with dolphins--a crude suggestion that the brain is functioning more efficiently than normal.

When Cole studied the medical literature to try to explain this phenomenon, he couldn't find anything. So in 1991 Cole sold Studiotronics to a Japanese company called Chinon, moved to California, and founded AquaThought with a colleague. Though he now works for Chinon, the company gives him all the time he needs to pursue his dolphin research. To facilitate that research, he and a colleague invented a device called MindSet. Looking like a bathing cap with electrodes attached to it, MindSet translates brain waves into real-time images; the fluctuating brain waves are projected onto a computer screen, and the resulting picture bears some resemblance to a lava lamp. The pair created the device because they couldn't afford a $75,000 EEG.

Three years after founding AquaThought, Cole thinks he has figured out why dolphins have beneficial effects on humans. He warns, however, that a lot of people aren't going to believe what he has to say.

Cole isn't the first freethinker to be obsessed with dolphins. He's a disciple of futurist writer and scientist John Lilly, who in 1975 founded the Human/Dolphin Foundation to explore the possibility of interspecies communication. (Lilly himself believed he was following in the footsteps of Aristotle, who had an interest in dolphins.) The dolphins he was studying, Lilly wrote in his 1978 work "Communication between Man and Dolphin," "would do anything to convince the humans that they were sentient and capable."

The field of dolphin-assisted therapy was probably started by Dr. Betsy Smith, an educational anthropologist at Florida International University. In 1971 Smith, who was researching dolphin-human interaction, let her mentally retarded brother wade into the water with two adolescent dolphins. "They were pretty rough dolphins," Smith remembers. But not with her brother. "The dolphins were around him, still, gentle, rubbing on him." Somehow, they knew he was different.

There are now 150 dolphin-assisted therapy researchers worldwide, and there seems little doubt that dolphin swims can help humans with disabilities such as Down's syndrome, autism, depression, attention deficit disorder, muscular dystrophy, and spinal cord injuries. Mentally retarded children who swam with dolphins, for example, "learned their lessons two to 10 times faster than in a normal classroom setting," says Chris Harre of the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Fla.

Other researchers have found that swimming with dolphins boosts the production of infection-fighting T cells. The generally accepted theory is that swimming with dolphins increases relaxation, which helps stimulate the immune system.

Such vague psychological explanations drive Cole crazy; he calls them "horseshit," though he's not a very good swearer. Cole doesn't deny that relaxation helps T cell production. ("I could send you to Tahiti for a week, and your T cell count would probably go up," he says.) But Cole believes that relaxation can't explain the changes in brain waves and blood chemistry in humans who've swum with dolphins.

Cole thinks these changes are caused by dolphins' sonar, which they use to scan the water around them. The sonar is incredibly precise; dolphins can "echolocate" a shark half a mile away in the ocean and determine whether its stomach is full or empty--and, consequently, whether it might be feeding.

"The dolphins produce an intense amount of echolocation energy," Cole says. "It resonates in your bones. You can feel it pass through you and travel up your spine."

Cole's theory is too complicated to do justice here, but it goes basically like this: A dolphin's sonar can cause a phenomenon called cavitation, a ripping apart of molecules. (You see it in everyday life when, for example, you throw the throttle of a speedboat all the way down, but the boat doesn't move; for that second, the propeller is cavitating the water.)

"It's very possible that dolphins are causing cavitation inside soft tissue in the body," Cole says. "And if they did that with cellular membranes, which are the boundaries between cells, they could completely change biomolecules." That could mean stimulating the production of T cells or the release of endorphins, hormones that prompt deep relaxation.

Someday, Cole says, scientists may be able to replicate dolphin sonar and use it in a precise, targeted way to bolster the immune system. But for now, he says, "the dolphin is a part of the experience."

In the cloudy water, I hear thedolphins before I see them: whirs, clicks, and buzzes fill the water.

To find out what it's really like to swim with dolphins, I have come to Dolphins Plus in Key Largo. It's a family-run place, surprisingly small, a suburban house that borders a canal with several large holding pens fenced off. (The dolphins can swim in the canal, but they always return to the pens.) Half an hour in the water costs $75, but before we can take the plunge we are given some guidelines. We are asked not to touch the dolphins; if they want to, they will touch us. We should swim with our hands at our sides, and avoid swimming directly at or behind the dolphins, which they might interpret as hostile. Dolphins generally like children best, women after that, and men last.

Equipped with flippers, mask, and snorkel, I slide off the dock. I can see only a few yards in the murky water. I am so nervous that I worry I won't be able to breathe through the snorkel, but my breath eventually settles into a steady rattle.

Quickly come the dolphin noises, seeming to feel me out. Still, I see nothing. Suddenly, there is a flash of white and gray to my side; a few moments later, a dolphin passes below me. It looks even larger in the water than it does on the surface.

The next time one passes, I dive down. As instructed, I try to make eye contact; for a few seconds the dolphin and I are swimming eye to eye, looking at and--I would swear to it--thinking about each other. These are not just cute, lovable puppy eyes; there's an intelligence here.

More dolphins swim by me, moving too fast for me to keep up. As they swim, huge yet graceful in the water, I am acutely aware of my human clumsiness, and grateful that these animals are letting me swim with them. I can't resist the temptation to wave slowly, hoping that they'll understand the gesture. (This is not so bad: One woman sang "Happy birthday, dear dolphin" through her snorkel for her entire half hour.)

The dolphins swim so close that I'm convinced I'll bump into them, but somehow they always keep an inch, two, three, between us. The temptation to touch them is great, yet resistable. Corny as it sounds, I want them to like me. To touch them would be like coughing at the opera.

At one point I am swimming with a mother and calf; the mother makes eye contact with me, and suddenly I feel it: the zap of the dolphin echolocating me, almost like an electric shock. This, I decide later, is what telepathy must feel like: You hear a sound in your head, but it didn't get there through your ears. It startles me, and I stop swimming. The dolphin opens her mouth, seeming to smile, and she and her calf dart away.

When I get out of the water after 30 fleeting minutes, I feel an incredible calm. I wonder if there is a purely psychological explanation--the magic of the experience affecting me. But it feels deeper than that. Somehow, my body feels different. At this moment, I think David Cole is right.

A woman who was swimming with me sits down. She puts her face in her hands and begins sobbing quietly. "I thought I would be all right," she says to a companion. I never do find out what she means.

Not everyone likes the idea that swimming with dolphins helps humans. Animal rights groups are concerned that such a theory could lead to an explosion in the number of captured dolphins. "We don't feel it's right," says Jenny Woods of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "The animal has to be caged for the program to work."

Cole and other dolphin researchers share this concern. Betsy Smith, for example, has given up swimming with captive dolphins and now only swims with dolphins in the wild. (One concern of Smith's is that echolocation is less common among captive dolphins. When I tell her that I was echolocated, she says the dolphin must have found something about me interesting. "That's flattering," I remark. "Not necessarily," she says. "It may have been a tumor.")

For his part, Cole is trying hard to perfect Cyberfin, so people can virtually swim with dolphins.

Smith and Cole may be racing against time. As more and more people hear of dolphins' therapeutic effects, the desire to exploit the animals for a quick buck will spread.

But to Cole, this is not a reason to stop working with dolphins. He wants to establish a permanent dolphin research facility, something that doesn't exist right now. "We're not looking for a magic bullet," Cole says. "We're looking for ways of interfering with the progression of disease. It's virgin territory."

And if it means that people think he's a little odd--well, David Cole can live with that.

Richard Blow is the editor of Regardie's magazine.

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