A new study reveals that great apes deliberately spin themselves to make themselves dizzy, and the discovery could provide clues about humans’ drive to seek altered mental states.
Researchers found a viral video of a male gorilla spinning in a pool. While researching YouTube, they found more videos of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans engaging in spinning behaviours.
Analysing over 40 online videos of apes spinning on ropes and vines, the experts found that, on average, the primates revolved 5.5 times per spinning episode, with an average speed of 1.5 revolutions per second. The primates did this on average three times.
Publishing their findings in Primates, researchers from the Universities of Birmingham and Warwick compared great ape spinning speeds – discovering that they can spin while holding onto a rope as fast as professional human dancers and circus artists, as well as Dervish Muslims who take part in whirling ceremonies to achieve a spiritual trance.
Dr Marcus Perlman, lecturer in the Department of English Language and Linguistics of the University of Birmingham, who co-led the research, commented: “We experimented with spinning at these speeds and found it difficult to sustain for as long the great apes did in several cases.”
“Apes became noticeably dizzy in many of the videos and were likely to lose their balance and fall. This would indicate that the primates deliberately keep spinning, despite starting to feel the effects of dizziness, until they cannot keep their balance any longer.”
“Spinning is a way in which great apes can change their state of mind. Since these apes share with humans the tendency to create such experiences, our discovery offers the tantalising prospect that we’ve inherited this drive to seek altered mental states from our evolutionary ancestors.”
In the videos analysed, the primates used ropes or vines to spin, which the authors believe enabled them to achieve such fast speeds for an extended period. Researchers analysed the videos and compared the apes’ behaviour to videos of purposeful human pirouettes, for example, ballet dancing, traditional Hopak dancing, and aerial silks performances.
Dr Adriano Lameira, associate professor of Psychology at The University of Warwick who co-led the study, commented: “Every culture has found a way of evading reality through dedicated and special rituals, practices, or ceremonies. This human trait of seeking altered states is so universal, historically and culturally, that it raises the intriguing possibility that this has been potentially inherited from our evolutionary ancestors.”
“If this was indeed the case, it would carry huge consequences on how we think about modern human cognition capacities and emotional needs. Spinning alters our consciousness; it messes up with our body-mind responsiveness and coordination, making us feel sick, lightheaded, and even elated as in the case of children playing in merry-go-rounds, spinner-wheels, and carousels.”
The researchers sought to understand whether spinning can be studied as a primordial behaviour that human ancestors could have engaged in to tap into other states of consciousness. If all great apes seek dizziness, our ancestors were also highly likely to do so.
Previous studies which attempted to understand the human motivation for self-inducing dizziness focused on substance use such as alcohol or drugs, but it is uncertain whether these or other substances would have been accessible to human ancestors, either because those substances were not available in their environment or because individuals and communities didn’t have the technical and cultural knowledge to produce or process psychoactive substances.
Scientists say this new study could be more relevant to explain the role of altered states on the evolution of the human mind.
The scientists say that further research is needed to understand primates’ motivations for engaging in these behaviours and why our ancestors might have been driven to seek out these spinning and mind-altering experiences.