Humans aren’t the only primate messing around with their state of mind for fun. Footage online appears to show gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans deliberately spinning themselves around to get dizzy with it.
While few of these animals were filmed in the wild, the findings suggest our primate relatives may have a similar proclivity for losing control over their bodies and minds as we humans.
Two researchers, one from the University of Warwick and the other from the University of Birmingham, analyzed 40 online videos of great apes spinning on ropes or vines. The scenes are strikingly similar to the dizzying behaviors members of our own species often engage in, whether toddlers spinning on playground equipment or Sufis meditatively dancing, to the point that the scientists claim the patterns are “beyond coincidental.”
Hanging upside down or spinning around in circles messes with the careful balance of our physiological state and gives us a psychological ‘high’ via dizziness, light-headedness, head rushes, or vertigo.
Human children mess around with these feelings particularly often, and scientists think it helps their developing sensory perceptions. Whirling around until we lose control can teach us important lessons about how our bodies and minds operate and how we can stimulate those processes for our own gain.
Meanwhile, for human adults, spinning is often a key part of dance, which can boost moods and bond groups of people.
Though highly speculative, it’s possible ‘whirling’ could have deliberately altered our state of mind before we learned how to make alcohol or trip on plant and fungal materials.
“There could be a link to mental health here, as the primates we observed engaging in this behavior were mostly captive individuals, who may be bored and trying to stimulate their senses in some way,” says evolutionary psychologist Adriano Lameira from the University of Warwick.
“But it could also be a play behavior. If you think about a child’s playground, almost all the playground apparatus – swings, slides, seesaws and roundabouts or merry-go-rounds – they are all designed to challenge your balance or disrupt the body-mind responses.”
Altering our state of mind seems to be an innate human desire. Right around the world, there are cases of humans attempting to escape or transcend the present by altering how they feel or see the world in any given moment. But where did that strange, deep-seated desire come from?
Some scientists suspect we acquired it long before we became human.
Previous studies have investigated this hypothesis by studying wild primates that eat fermented fruits. These little shots of alcohol can make the animal ‘drunk’ if they consume enough, and yet it’s unclear if primates are eating these fruits for the high or for the calories.
The act of spinning could be a clearer demonstration of an animal purposefully altering their perception.
Lameira and his co-author, cognitive scientist Marcus Perlman, got the idea when they saw a viral online video of a gorilla, spinning around in a kiddie pool at Dallas Zoo.
The animal seemed to be having the time of its life.
“Spinning alters our state of consciousness, it messes up with our body-mind responsiveness and coordination, which make us feel sick, lightheaded, and even elated as in the case on children playing in merry-go-rounds, spinner-wheels, and carousels,” explains Lameira.
“What we wanted to try to understand through this study is whether spinning can be studied as a primordial behavior that human ancestors would have been able to autonomously engage in and tap into other states of consciousness. If all great apes seek dizziness, then our ancestors are also highly likely to have done so.”
In all 40 spinning videos that Lameira and Perlman studied, great apes seemed to be voluntarily seeking out and engaging in experiences that altered their self-perception and their location in space.
Altogether, the duo counted 132 bouts of ‘rope spinning’, in which a great ape would hold onto a twisted rope or vine and let themselves go.
Compared to videos of humans spinning, our primate relatives were behaving in similar ways, on par with professional dancers or circus performers.
On average, great apes in the videos spun around 5 times in a single go at a rate of about 1.5 spins a second. The whole sequence was repeated about three times, and on the third go, it was common for the animal to lose balance and fall down.
When Lameira and Perlman tried to spin around in this manner, they found the third rotation similarly difficult to maintain without falling. This implies that the animals were spinning until they no longer could.
“The longest bout was 28 revolutions; the fastest sustained rotational speed (for five spins) was 3.3 revolutions per second (rps) ; and the fastest single revolution was 5 rps; all of which clearly indicated that spinning is not an “erratic” behavior,” researchers write.
“Our findings, while exploratory, provide a proof of concept and a new charter for the study and comparison of spinning and altered mental states between humans and great apes,” they add.
Even among lesser apes, like gibbons, spinning on ropes or vines is common, as can be seen in the video below, and this suggests our mind-altering desires may have even deeper evolutionary roots than the current study suggests.
Further research involving apes in the wild could help confirm if great apes show a proclivity for spinning as a deliberate means of shaking up their perception of the world for fun or distraction. There are also a diverse range of incentives that drive humans to lick, snort, imbibe and consume their way into altered states, whether it’s to sense greater social connection with animistic forces or reduce sensations altogether.
Yet the very act of seeking a new ‘spin’ on reality had to have started somewhere.
“This human trait of seeking altered states is so universal, historically, and culturally, that it raises the intriguing possibility that this is something that has been potentially inherited from our evolutionary ancestors,” says Lameira.
“If this was indeed the case, it would carry huge consequences on how we think about modern human cognition capacities and emotional needs.”
The study was published in Primates.