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Is There a Dolphin in the House?

Dolphin-Assisted Healing for Physical Disability

Laurance Johnston, Ph.D. and Russell Bourne, Ph.D.

In alternative medicine circles, dolphins have been cited as having special capabilities that enhance healing potential in people with a physical disability, including spinal cord injury and dysfunction.

Throughout tDolphin assisted therapy for spinal cord injury (SCI) and physical disabilityhe ages, man has had a special fascination with dolphins.  This relationship continues to be acknowledged today by many diverse sources.  Dr. John Lilly determined in his studies of the human brain and interspecies communication possibilities that man may rank behind the dolphin in terms of cerebral development as measurable in mammals.  The U.S. Navy has also recognized the dolphin’s intelligence capabilities and has been using them for highly specialized missions for over 20 years. 

Even ancient cultures speak of connective links to the dolphins. One such culture existing to this day is an Australian aborigine tribe known as the Dolphin People. They believe their ancestors were the souls of dolphins who were slaughtered by sharks and then reborn as the first humans.

Science’s challenge science toDolphin assisted therapy for spinal cord injury (SCI) and physical disability view all information from all sources - not as an obscuring veil - but as insights pointing to truths.

The Dolphin:

Dolphins are highly social creatures, and they usually live in pods of varying size. They are mammals who nurse their young and must surface to breathe.

In the wild, dolphins can live up to 50 years. Like humans, dolphins have a large, complex brain, especially the area associated with higher cognitive functioning.  Dolphins navigate through their aqueous environment using a highly sophisticated sonar system. They emit a focused blast of ultrasound vibrations, which, in turn, reflect off objects before returning to the animals.

Their powerful sonar can penetrate up to three feet through sand and mud with resolution significant enough to distinguish between a dime and a penny.  Due to this power, scientists believe that dolphins can view the inside of our bodies similar to a sonogram performed on pregnant women.

Indeed, dolphins are fascinated with pregnant women, honing in on the unborn fetus. Furthermore, they often focus on individuals’ specific areas of impairment, as well as places containing tumors. Many times people who swim with the dolphins can feel himself being scanned. As if bypassing the ears, the sound resonates in the bones, traveling up the spine.

Dolphin-Assisted Therapy:

Dolphins appear to facilitate healing through mechanisms not readily reconciled with modern medical precepts. People frequently report that they become euphoric after swimming with these loving, graceful, and joyous creatures. In turn, an uplifted spirit seems to infuse beneficial healing effects into the mind and body. Numerous people who have serious illnesses and depression have reported dramatic, long-term, favorable changes in their emotional state.

Scientists now know that these emotional changes (which last much longer than the “high” experienced from the release of endorphins, the body’s natural opiates) can initiate a cascade of health-enhancing hormonal and physiological changes. Children with a variety of developmental disabilities have shown remarkable improvements after dolphin-assisted therapy. Learning, cognitive abilities, concentration, communication, and ability to relate to others all improve.

In addition to possessing a direct therapeutic effect, dolphins appear to enhance other therapies. For example, the Upledger Institute recently treated individuals with a variety of disorders with dolphin-assisted, craniosacral therapy. The therapy was completed in the water with, and in near proximity to, the dolphins. Many beneficial effects were observed beyond levels normally realized, including pain reduction, increased ease in breathing, muscle relaxation, enhanced strength and flexibility, increased appetite, and better sleep.

Furthermore, the dolphin’s sonar echolocation apparently reduced various tissue restrictions, including adhesions resulting from past surgeries, scarring, or trauma. Based on these positive results, the Upledger Institute is in the process of establishing an ongoing dolphin-assisted, craniosacral therapy program.

Spinal Cord Injury: 

John Arndt, a paraplegic since 1988, participated in this pilot program. He is an actor, writer, poet, and a playwright who once worked with Tennessee Williams.  He recorded his experiences with the dolphins in a journal. Following is an excerpt. (contact Arndt at to obtain a copy of his dolphin experiences) 

“Dolphin Therapy this morning, my Lord, what a morning!  First we went for a "structured swim” with two pregnant dolphins.  The regular stuff, dorsal pulls, imitative games, kisses, and pets.  Then into a pool with a dolphin named Tina, a young female, and a very strong girl.  Tina would go to my feet and blast energy up from there; it was completely powerful. Suddenly my feet came alive with a pulsing energy. dolphin assisted craniosacral therapy for spinal cord injury (SCI) and physical disabilityThat pulsing energy went through my body and into my lower spinal cord. Every time Tina would blast from my feet, I would get a "therapeutic earthquake" from my first lumbar vertebrae down into my sacrum. All my tissues in the lower part of my body were literally shaking with energy. Talk about sending a shiver up the spine, this was the ultimate.”

Next Day: “Starting at my feet, there is a constant flow and movement of impulse, a indescribable gyration of synergy that rotates and pulsates, ebbs and flows, buzzes and beats, vibrates and harmonizes with a myriad of sensations that move up and down my legs. This is more than I've felt down there since the night I fell out of that tree.  And the location is different too… this morning, the energy web has moved all the way down into my feet and pulsating upward from there. It is warm, I would say an almost glowing awareness of my feet and legs, tissues and bone.  It feels so fine.”

How Dolphins Heal:

Although no one really knows how and to what degree dolphins heal, a number of both scientific and intuitive speculations have been put forth.

Sound and Vibration: Scientists believe that the dolphin’s ultrasound emissions have considerable healing potential from an energy and informational perspective. Clinically, ultrasound has been used to promote healing, for diagnostic imaging, and to destroy cataracts and kidney and gallstones. Throughout history, sound - such as music, drumming and chanting - has been used to promote health. Physiologically, we now know that these sounds can influence heart rate, breathing, muscle contractions, memory, and immune function. In terms of energy, the dolphin’s ultrasound blast is four times stronger than therapeutically used in hospitals.

Furthermore, this blast is delivered through water, which is 60 times more efficient than air for sound transference, to a body that is three-quarters fluid. It is believed that ultrasound resonance within the cerebrospinal fluid is especially important due to the fluid’s key influence on the brain and spinal cord.

Brain Waves: Dr. David Cole of the Aquathought Foundation has shown that human brain waves shift from high-frequency beta to low-frequency theta waves after a dolphin encounter. Beta waves are associated with increased concentration, alertness, and enhanced memory function. In contrast, theta waves are associated with enhanced creativity, sensory integration, and altered states of consciousness. For the sake of reference, people exhibit theta waves in the fleeting moments when they drift from consciousness into sleep.

Scientists believe that a brain-wave shift of this nature strengthens the human immune system. Furthermore, after a dolphin encounter, research has shown a synchronization of brain-wave activity between the logical, analytical left brain and the intuitive, imaginative right brain. These brain-wave alterations may explain why people view swimming with the dolphins as a transcendental experience.

Dr. Cole speculates that these brain-wave alterations are facilitated by sonar-induced cavitation. Basically, the dolphin’s intense sound waves create alternating regions of compression and expansion that form small bubbles in the cell membrane.  In turn, these bubbles facilitate the transport of key neurological molecules from outside to inside neurons.

Human Energy Fields: Scientists also speculate that the dolphins’ therapeutic energy is mediated through human energy fields. According to human energy field theory (see Infinite Mind, Dr.. Valerie Hunt, Malibu Publishing Co, 1996), disease has its origins in the energy field at an atomic level, which then progressively manifests in the molecular, cellular and body-system levels. Conversely, if the energy field is fixed, healing will progress to the physical body. The human energy field responds to stimulus, such as sound, even when the person experiences no conscious awareness of the stimulus and before changes are noted in physiological parameters such as brain waves, blood pressure, etc.  Because it is theorized that the effects of spinal cord injury are stored in these energy fields, mending the human energy field first will promote the body’s healing.

According to speculation, dolphins can sense human-energy-field imbalances and adjust their ultrasonic emanations. Dolphins & Energy FieldsThe dolphin’s powerful energy may initiate an appropriate alteration in the human electromagnetic field, which, in turn, will facilitate healing.

Intuitive Perspective: Elan O’Brien, who became a spiritual healer after a transformational experience with the dolphins, says these animals’ energy represents an alignment with a greater consciousness. According to O’Brien, the human nervous system programming usually prevents us from realizing that alignment and expressing the natural order. Dolphins, through their sonar and mudra-like movements, can shift our programming patterns by changing the body’s electromagnetic fields. As a result, the body’s limited belief structures are opened and changed.

In conclusion, in spite of these speculations, no one truly knows how dolphins mediate their healing. Is it merely a psychosomatic, feel-good effect? Or does it represent some unknown healing mechanism that is beyond our traditional perspectives of medicine? Clearly, enough evidence suggests it is worthy of further investigation. However, it remains to be seen whether mankind can set aside biases of superiority to co-create new knowledge with the dolphins.

Resources: For a good overview on the subject, consult Dolphins and Their Power to Heal by Amanda Cochrane and Karena Callen, Healing Arts Press (1992). The web site provides a list of organizations involved in dolphin-assisted therapy. Photo and drawing credit Cindy Lohan and Shira Lightfoot, respectively.

Adapted from an article appearing in the July 1999 issue of Paraplegia News (For subscriptions, contact

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