BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — Great apes get “high” by spinning themselves into a state of dizziness, according to a new study. The stimulation could provide new insight into some human’s desire to try mind-altering drugs, ranging from alcohol and cigarettes to LSD and cocaine. Researchers in the United Kingdom found that gorillas whirl themselves around in circles — a common sensory fix that children often crave.
“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 is something that has been potentially inherited from our evolutionary ancestors,” says study co-lead Dr. Adriano Lameira, Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Warwick, in a media release.
“If this was indeed the case, it would carry huge consequences on how we think about modern human cognition capacities and emotional needs.”
The psychologists became curious after stumbling across a YouTube video of a male gorilla spinning in a pool which went viral. Searches uncovered more gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans engaging in similar behaviors.
An analysis of over 40 online videos found the primates revolved an average five-and-a-half times per episode. In many of the episodes, they were using ropes or vines to go faster and spin longer. It increased their efficiency to that of professional ballet dancers, circus artists, and mystic Dervishes — who achieve a spiritual trance during whirling ceremonies.
“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,” Dr. Lameira explains.
“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.”
“We asked ourselves what role these behaviors play when it comes to the origins of the human mind,” the study author adds.
“The apes were doing this purposefully, almost as if they were dancing – a known mechanism in humans that universally facilitates mood regulation, social bonding and heightens the senses and is based on rotation movements. The parallel between what the apes were doing and what humans do was beyond coincidental.”
The researchers compared the sequences to videos of purposeful human pirouettes, traditional Hopak dancers, and aerial silks performances. They also self-experimented and found it difficult to achieve spins at the same speeds. The apes eventually became noticeably dizzy, losing their balance and falling down.
“This would indicate that the primates deliberately keep spinning, despite starting to feel the effects of dizziness, until they are unable to keep their balance any longer,” explains Dr. Marcus Perlman, Lecturer at the Department of English Language and Linguistics of The University of Birmingham.
Previous studies on self-induced dizziness in humans have focused on substance use such as consuming alcohol or ingesting drugs.
“The further back in human history you look, the less certain we can be about the role that substance-induced experiences played in our evolution. It’s not clear whether our ancestors had access to mind altering substances, or if they had the tools and knowledge to create the substance,” Dr. Lameira says. “For example, people may have had access to grapes, but you cannot assume they have the tools or the knowledge to create wine.”
Understanding primates’ motivations could show why our own ancestors were driven to seek out spinning and mind-altering experiences.
“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,” Lameira continues.
“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,” the researcher concludes. “There are some interesting parallels that should be investigated further, in order to understand why people are motivated to engage in these behaviors. It could very well be that we have been seeking and engaging in mind-altering experiences before we were even modern humans.”
The study is published in the journal Primates.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.