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The Healing Power of Dolphins
- A Psychodynamic Perspective

 The Dolphin Experience
An Essay by David Lloyd-Hoare Bsc(hons) - Written in 1994


Dolphins seem to possess the extraordinary ability to trigger the healing process within people. Those people who have had the good fortune to enjoy close contact with dolphins in the wild, invariably agreed that the experience was profoundly uplifting, all absorbing, and even spiritual. The majority

reported that they felt in receipt of unconditional love, and felt "in some way changed for the better" by their encounter.


I have myself experienced the emotional and spiritual effect of swimming with a wild dolphin. At the time, I was at an emotional low point in my life, feeling depressed, having lost my business and a relationship. I had heard the stories of Fungie, a solitary dolphin who swam in Dingle Bay on the south west coast of Ireland, and I set off with curiosity and a healthy scepticism, In the event, being close to this dolphin was an unforgettable coming together. The dolphin came to greet me and showered me with his “echo sound" (a type of natural Sonar which enables a dolphin to "see" in murky water, or over long distances, or inside other organisms); that, and our meeting eye to eye led me to experience the sensation of really having being seen unconditionally.


Later, on swimming to the shore, I contacted a hurt deep within me that welled up with almost explosive anguish and tears; I experienced a release, a letting go. On returning home, I found that I was planning for the future, working and redecorating my house. Something had changed.


The Idea that dolphins have healing powers was first noted in the mid 1970s by Dr. Horace Dobbs PhD, a fellow of the Royal Society of medicine, who was involved in medical and vetinary research. Two incidents convinced him that dolphins have a special therapeutic influence on the human mind and spirit. In the first, Geoff Bold, a lifeboat mechanic who was close to nervous breakdown, swam with a friendly dolphin called Donald, after this encounter Bold’s depression was considerably lifted.


Secondly, a few years later, when Dr. Dobbs took a group of people out to see Simo, a friendly bottlenose dolphin swimming off the coast of Wales; Dr, Dobbs was intrigued to note that the dolphin spent most time with one man, Bill Bowell. Then aged 54, Bowell had previously suffered both a heart attack and a nervous breakdown, and had slipped into a state of deep depression. The meeting with Simo was a remarkable turning point for him. He described the dolphin encounter as more therapeutic than all the anti-depressant drugs he had been taking After subsequent swims, Bowell started to change from being apprehensive, withdrawn and nervous into an altogether more confident and outgoing person.


In the intervening years, countless people who have swum with such dolphins have reported that the experience has had a powerful impact on their lives. The majority expressing that they were in receipt of unconditional love, and a great many experiencing some sort of cathartic release. As a result of observing these dramatic changes in people suffering from psychological disturbances, Horace Dobbs set up "Operation Sunflower" which aimed to study the therapeutic powers of dolphins, and to make them available to as many people as possible.

A Psychodynamic Approach

Since the time of my encounter, I have puzzled at this phenomenon. Although I have searched the dolphin-orientated literature for an answer, I have found only hints as to the psychological reasoning behind the observed change. However, the notion of unconditional love pervades throughout the reporting of this phenomenon.


The suggestion that dolphins can alleviate depression and promote a healing response remains somewhat controversial, and according to many dolphin scientists, is without any real scientific basis. Nonetheless, whale and dolphin expert Dr. Peter Evans, a research population geneticist at the University of Oxford and founder of the Cetacean Group of the UK Mammal Society, makes the following observation:

“I think dolphins have a therapeutic effect simply through the response that a human has to receiving attention from another animal - perhaps attention that is being received for the first time. Because the psychological element plays a very important role in healing, I think it is possible that they do contribute to the healing process”


Dr. Bernie Siegel, surgeon and author of "Love Medicine and Miracles" writes of unconditional love. He suggests that all healing is related to the ability to give and accept this form of love. He believes that all disease is ultimately related to a lack of love or to experiencing only love that is conditional. The common denominator in all depression is a lack of love or a loss of meaning in life, at least as it is perceived from the point of view of the depressed person. Illness often functions as an escape from a routine that has become meaningless. He suggests that one of the most common precursors of cancer is traumatic loss of love and a feeling of emptiness in life. Siegel further suggests that many people, particularly cancer patients, grow up believing that there is a terrible flaw at the centre of their being, a defect that they must hide if they are to have a chance of love. Feeling unlovable and condemned to loneliness if their true selves become known, such individuals set up defences against sharing their innermost feelings with anyone, They feel that their inability to love is shriveling them up, which leads to further despair, Because such people experience a sense of profound internal emptiness, they come to see all relationships and transactions in terms of getting something to fill the vaguely understood void within, They therefore give love on the condition that they get something in return, whether this be comfort, security, praise or a comparable kind of love.


Other writers on the subject of the dolphins healing abilities cite Siegel's work in order to explain how the perceived unconditional love given by a wild dolphin might promote healing.

An Understanding - Carl Rogers and Alice Miller

It was not until I started my training as a Psychotherapist, that I began to understand how the dolphin - human relationship could effect a change for those suffering from depression. It was during my training that I was introduced to the works of Carl Rogers and later Alice Miller.


Carl Rogers spoke of “unconditional positive regard” in the relationship between client and counsellor. He felt that the "relationship" created a container for change, He characterised this relationship as follows:


"By a genuineness and transparency, in which I am my real feelings; by a warm acceptance of and prizing of the other person as a separate individual; by a sensitive ability to see his world and himself as he sees them.


Then the other individual in the relationship:


Will experience and understand aspects of himself which previously he has repressed; will find himself better integrated, more able to function effectively; will become more similar to the person he would like to be; will be more self directing and self confident; will become more of a person, more unique and self expressive; will be more understanding and accepting of others; will be able to cope with the problems of life more adequately and more comfortably.”


Carl Rogers went on to say:


"I believe that this statement holds whether I am speaking of my relationship with a client, with a group of students or staff members, with my family or children.”


If he had been aware of the dolphin phenomenon he might of included the dolphin relationship. For in that brief relationship the dolphin is perceived as genuine, transparent and being its real feelings. It is perceived as warmly accepting and prizing of the other as a separate individual. People in this relationship report that they feel as if they have been truly seen. As a result of that encounter, those changes to which Carl Rogers refers, are observed (to various degrees) in the thoughts feelings and behaviour of the people concerned.


More recently the work of Alice Miller, an author and retired psychoanalysist, has provided me with a further insight as to why encounters such as my own have such a profound effect.

The Seeds of Depression

The uplifting or easing of depression is one of the most striking changes observed in those people who have experienced dolphin healing. It is then I feel, important to understand one of the reasons that cause people to suffer in this way.


Alice Miller's work offers extraordinary insights and explanations as to the reasons why we as adults often share common feelings of unfulfillment, emptiness and loss of identity. And how in some cases this leads to depression and other symptoms. She suggests that we all to some extent, were exposed as children to loneliness and desertion, She is not speaking of the obvious cases of desertion or separation from the parents, nor of children who were uncared for or totally neglected. She speaks however, of people who suffer from a feeling of emptiness, self-alienation and a sense that their life has no meaning, adults who are depressed. These people often had sensitive and caring parents, parents from whom they received much encouragement. They believe that their childhood was happy and protected. Her theories make the basic assumption that every child has a primary need to be regarded and respected as the person she really is at any given time, This means that from the first day onwards the child must be able to experience and express feelings, emotions and sensations in an atmosphere of respect and tolerance.


Every child has a legitimate need to be noticed, understood, taken seriously and respected by the mother. By mother, I mean the person closest to the child during the first years of life. This need not be the biological mother, or even a woman. In the first weeks and months of life the child needs to have the mother at her disposal, must be able to use her and to be mirrored by her, The mother then becomes the self object of the child. In an ideal situation, the child would be able to experience and express "ordinary" impulses such as jealousy, rage and defiance, without causing hurt or upset in, or rejection from the parents. This is because the parents would not require him to be special, or to represent their own ethical attitudes. The child would not feel a survival need to please the parents, but would be able to use the parents, as they would be independent of him. Object love would be made possible because the parents would love the child also as a separate object. This type of parenting would result in a person who was genuinely alive, with free access to the true self and all of his authentic feelings. There would be no need to hide any part of the true self from the parents, and ultimately from oneself.


However, if parents are to furnish these prerequisites for a healthy love of self in a child, the parents themselves ought to have grown up in such an atmosphere, Parents who did not experience this climate as children (sadly, It appears that not many did), are themselves deprived of this connection with self, this healthy love and knowledge of the real self. Alice Miller describes this as being “narcissistically deprived.”


These same parents are throughout their lives looking for what their own parents could not give them at the correct time - the presence of a person who is completely aware of them, takes them seriously, admires and follows them. This need can never be resolved, because it belongs to the past, the time when the self was first being formed. Nevertheless, a person with this unsatisfied and unconscious (because repressed) need will seek a substitute means. The most easily accessed objects for gratification are the parents own children, since the newborn and infant child is completely dependant on the parents for her existence. The child will do all she can to avoid losing them in order to survive. The child has an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively, that is unconsciously, to the need of the parents for her to take on the role that is unconsciously assigned in order to meet the need. The child will often idealize those guilty of this abuse, and later will have no memory of what was done to her.


The adaptation has a number of consequences, including the impossibility of consciously experiencing certain feelings of her own distress (jealousy, envy, anger, loneliness, impotence, anxiety and others) either in childhood or later as an adult. For these feelings may hurt the parent, make them feel insecure or threaten their equilibrium, which in turn threatens the child’s survival.


This process, described by Alice Miller as narcissistic cathexis of the child by the parent, does not exclude emotional devotion. The parent will love the child, excessively, as her self-object, though not in the manner that the child needs. This "love" is always dependant on the condition that the child presents his false self, by excluding those feelings and emotions that are not acceptable to the parent. What is missing is the relationship in which the child could experience all his feelings and emotions. Instead the child develops something that the mother needs, for the child’s survival is dependant on this "love" from the parent. But, as a consequence of this adaptation, the child soon forgets those parts of the self now hidden away, and then the child may be prevented throughout life from being himself. One of Alice Miller's patients expressed the above, in the following:


"I lived in a glass house into which my mother could look at any time. In a glass house however, you cannot conceal anything without giving yourself away, except by hiding it under the ground, and then you cannot see it yourself either.”


For the majority of sensitive people, the true self remains deeply and thoroughly hidden. How can you love something you do not know, something that has never been loved? So it is, that many a person lives without any notion of his or her true self. Such people are enamoured of an idealised, conforming, false self. They will shun their hidden and lost true self, unless depression makes them aware of its loss.

Depression as a Form of Narcissistic Disturbance

What is described as depression and experienced as emptiness, futility and loneliness, can often be recognised as the tragedy of the loss of self or alienation from the self. Depression is the defence against the deep Pain associated with that loss. Thus depression consists of a denial of one’s own emotional reactions and feelings. This denial begins in the service of an absolutely essential adaptation (previously described above) during childhood, to avoid losing the mother's love.


Mirroring is when the child looks up into the mothers face, or the mothering source. The mothers face is the most important face a child ever looks into, the mothers eyes are the most important eyes a child ever looks into, and as the child looks into those eyes he or she needs to see all of him/herself. The mothers mirroring face is needed to come into consciousness, to be self-conscious. There is no way for a child to know who he/she is without that mirroring face. The mother of the narcissistically cathected child did not provide the essential mirroring of that child during those early times. The resultant depressed adult is oblivious to, and denies completely, this state of affairs. Life continues as though the availability of the self-object could still be salvaged, i.e. by continuing to search for that mirroring. The pain of the loss of the self- object (essential mirroring) is avoided, simply through denying the loss, and then continuing to fear the loss of that same self-object. The depressive cannot accept the truth that this loss, or unavailability, has already happened in the past, and that no effort whatsoever can change this fact.

Avoiding the Pain of the Loss of Self

A number of ~mechanisms can be recognised in the defence against the pain of the loss of self.


In addition to depression there is reversal;


“I am breaking down under the constant responsibility, because the others need me ceaselessly."


Changing passive suffering into active behaviour;


“I must quit women as soon as I feel that I am essential to them"


Intellectualisation is a defence mechanism of great reliability; Projection onto other objects, and introjection of the threat of loss of love;


“I must always be good and measure up to the norm, then there is no risk, I constantly feel that the demands are too great, but I cannot change that, I must always achieve more than others"


The latter defence mechanism, another form of narcissistic disturbance, is known as Grandiosity. The person who is grandiose is admired everywhere and needs this admiration. He cannot live without it; He must excel brilliantly in everything he undertakes. He too, admires himself for his qualities; his beauty, cleverness, talents and for his success and achievements. The grandiose persons partners (including sexual partners) are also narcissistically cathected.  Others are there to admire her, and she herself is constantly occupied, body and soul with gaining that admiration. This is how her torturing dependence shows itself. The childhood trauma is repeated, she is always the child whom her mother admires, but at the same time she senses that so long as it is her qualities that are being admired, she is not loved for the person she really is.


It is thus impossible for the grandiose person to cut the tragic link between admiration and love. In his compulsion to repeat, he seeks insatiably for admiration, of which he never gets enough, because admiration is not the same as love, it is only a substitute gratification of the primary needs for respect, understanding and being taken seriously.  One of the ways in which depression can be linked with grandiosity, is that depression will sometimes appear when grandiosity has broken down as a result of sickness, disablement, ageing or failure in achievement.

Therapeutic Intervention

The achievement of freedom from both grandiosity and depression is hardly possible without deeply felt mourning. When a person is “seen” in the psychotherapeutic relationship; and those hidden parts of self are found and given permission to be and the person is accepted unconditionally, the feelings that emerge are accompanied by such intensity of pain and despair, that it is quite clear that these people could not have survived so much pain as children. This could be the same cathartic reaction that is displayed in response to the unconditional love perceived as being given by a wild dolphin.


This ability to mourn, that is, to give up the illusion of a happy childhood, can restore the depressive’s vitality and creativity, and free the grandiose person from the exertions of and dependence on his achievements. The true opposite of depression is vitality and the freedom to experience authentic and spontaneous feelings.

In Conclusion

 have attempted in this presentation to link the phenomena observed in the healing dolphin encounter, with established psychodynamic theories and practices.


The majority of healing experiences connected with dolphins concern the uplifting of low level and even severe depression.  This presentation shows how depression is linked to a loss of the self. That is, not being really "seen" in all aspects of one's being.  Depression is the defence against the deep pain associated with that loss.


People who have swum with a wild dolphin report that they are scanned by the dolphins echo sound. This enables the creature to see “inside” the person in the same way an ultra-scan can see an unborn fetus in the womb. I can personally confirm that this gave me a feeling of being emotionally transparent. People also feel that they are in receipt of unconditional love, and that the dolphin’s eye can see them as they really are, in all aspects of their being.


Unconditional love (unconditional positive regard) has been shown by Carl Rogers to create a container in which change can occur, this concurs with the work of Bernie Siegel concerning cancer patients. It is as if the encounter with a dolphin creates a space where a person is seen as they really are, and simultaneously given unconditional love (unconditional positive regard). When this experience is created within a therapeutic relationship between client and therapist, it is of ten accompanied by a catharsis of deeply held emotions, which is a precursor to a lifting of the depression. This same cathartic response, and lifting of depression or illness, is observed in the healing dolphin encounter.


Dolphins heal! Perhaps this is one of the ways in which they do it.


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