Dusky dolphins in Maori Bay

Article: Aeon on dolphins as healers (Dolphin Assisted Therapy)

Dusky dolphins in Maori Bay
Dusky dolphins in Maori Bay

Every second day someone has a new inspiration as to how the ancient wisdom and psychic powers of dolphins can make the world a better place. The latest popular idea is that dolphins can heal people with developmental disorders and psychological wounds via “dolphin assisted therapy” (DAT). I found this article about it by neuroscientists Lori Marino, via a write up by Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic, which probably does it more justice than I’m about to.

Marino explains the reasons for the mystique attached to dolphins thusly:

Much of our attraction to these creatures derives from their appealing combination of intelligence and communicativeness, and the mystery associated with the fact that they inhabit a hidden underwater environment. Dolphins are the Other we’ve always wanted to commune with. And their ‘smile’, which is not a smile at all, but an anatomical illusion arising from the physical configuration of their jaws, has led to the illusion that dolphins are always jovial and contented, compounding mythological beliefs that they hold the key to the secret of happiness.

The idea of dolphins as healers, or having magical powers and somehow being more than they are (sea dwelling mammals with sharp teeth and apparently smiley faces) is not new – it is thousands of years old. Many cultures have ascribed special powers and significance to dolphins (and to cats, but I don’t see anyone charging for Cat Assisted Therapy or CAT). Most recently, the work of neuroscientist slash psychoanalyst John C. Lilly served to cement dolphins’ status as what Marino calls the “ultimate New Age icon[s]”. Initially his research remained rooted in the scientific method, but his dolphin studies (including feeding them LSD and some other unsavoury details that Marino alludes to) increasingly incorporated more and more quasi-spirituality and mumbo jumbo.

Dolphin assisted therapy is big business in a number of countries worldwide. Practitioners are not accredited in any way, and charge huge amounts of money to desperate families hoping to witness a miraculous improvement in the health of their sometimes severely disabled children. Marino is blunt about the exploitative nature of these programs, and the lack of evidence supporting their effectiveness (long quote, sorry, but excellent – emphasis mine):

Meanwhile, many of the parents featured in the enthusiastic testimonials return home to renewed disappointment. Their children fall back into their regular routine, and fall silent again. At first, cognitive dissonance will not allow these parents to consider the possibility that they’ve wasted their money. But later they recognise that nothing has changed, and that the initial improvement was due to the excitement of the trip, and all the personal attention their child received. Many families visit DAT facilities and end up gaining little more than they would have done from interacting with a puppy.

Equally sad are the lives of the dolphins. Hidden behind their smile, and therefore largely invisible to patients and vacationers, captive dolphins spend their lives under tremendous stress as they struggle to adapt to an environment that, physically, socially and psychologically, is drastically different from the wild. The results are devastating. Stress leads to immune system dysfunction. Often they die from gastric ulcers, infections and other stress and immune-related diseases, not helped by their sometimes being given laxatives and antidepressants that are delivered in their food.

The worst of it, perhaps, is that there is absolutely no evidence for DAT’s therapeutic effectiveness. At best, there might be short-term gains attributable to the feel-good effects of being in a novel environment and the placebo boost of having positive expectations. Nothing more. Any apparent improvement in children with autism, people with depression, and others is as much an illusion as the ‘smile’ of the dolphin.

Studies purporting to prove that DAT is beneficial fail to account for the fact that interacting with an animal makes most people feel good, and for the fact that treatments often work because people believe that they will (the placebo effect). I can testify to how lovely it is to be near dolphins – in my case, wild ones. Dolphins are large predators with sharp teeth, and some DAT encounters have resulted in injuries and near drownings. Dolphins can be sexually aggressive, even towards humans (eek!), which I ‘d imagine would turn a DAT session sour in moments. They are also wild animals that don’t belong in captivity, and are stressed and traumatised by the experience. Marino concludes

I understand that desperate people will continue to visit DAT facilities for help with their own illnesses. Sadly, they may never realise that the dolphins they seek help from are likely to be as psychologically and physically traumatised as they are.

Read the full article here. I urge you to check it out – it’s fascinating. Leave your crystals at home.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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