David Cole knows that people consider him a little odd. He spends much of his free time swimming with dolphins, and 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. 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.”
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. 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.
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 founded AquaThought to pursue his dolphin research. Three years later, 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 thinks these beneficial effects 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 goes basically like this: A dolphin’s sonar can cause a phenomenon called cavitation, a ripping apart of molecules.
“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.”