Mar 16, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Great Apes Enter Altered States by Spinning Around

It should come as no surprise that other living creatures besides humans can and do get drunk on fermented beverages or high on psychoactive substances. Birds eating overripe berries, monkeys eating fermented fruits and reindeer eating magic mushrooms are just a few examples. However, only humans have shown the ability to enter an altered state without ingesting an intoxicant – instead, we can achieve a ‘high’ state via meditation, prayer, immersion tanks or even the dangerous practice of sexual asphyxiation. While even animals seem smart enough to avoid that last one, there are no examples of them intentionally altering their states of consciousness … until now. It turns out gorillas and other great apes seek and achieve altered mental states by spinning themselves into dizziness … just for the ‘fun’ of it. Not only that, the apes have more than one way to get dizzy. If there are any chimps reading this, check with your veterinarian before trying this spin therapy. For the rest of you, let’s learn more about the altered state of spinning apes.

You know the feeling.

“Whether altered state experiences within the hominid family shaped the emergence and evolution of the modern human mind remains one of the major and most thought-provoking unknowns in cognitive science.”

In their new study, published in the journal Primates, Adriano R. Lameira, a psychologist at the University of Warwick, and Marcus Perlman, a Lecturer at the Department of English Language and Linguistics of The University of Birmingham, set out to attempt to solve the mystery of how and why humans developed a desire for mind altering experiences and to determine if the trait is shared by the great apes, our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree. Lameira explains in a press release how every culture has ways of “evading reality” – a trait so universal, it seems very possible that the seeking of mind altering states was inherited from our ancestors. If that is the case, and the trait developed far enough back in our history, it could also be inherent in other species. While great apes have been observed getting drunk on fermented fruits, they haven’t been seen meditating, participating in rituals, or conducting other exercises to enter a non-substance-induced altered state.

“Here, we propose and explore the use of a new comparative behavioural model for the study of proactive divergence from normal waking states in human evolution: the act of spinning.”

Humans spinning for fun.

One method that is purely physical and not dependent on a spiritual connection is spinning to the point of making oneself dizzy. The study provides a medical definition of spinning for the uninitiated: “rapidly rotating around one’s body axis, mechanically disrupts inner ear homeostasis and sends nerve signals to the brain that conflict with those from automatic eye movements. In humans, this neuronal cross-signalling prompts the perception of a whirling world, along with dizziness, light-headedness, head rushes, vertigo, elation, and other altered states of perception, mood, and consciousness.” With those kinds of end results, it is no wonder we humans enjoy spinning ourselves to various levels of dizziness by dancing, whirling around on playground and amusement park rides, and other twirling activities. The altered state is caused by disruptions in the inner ear – an organ that is basically the same in the great apes. Could gorillas and chimps have discovered the pleasures of dizziness through spinning for themselves? This is not an activity one sees at zoos, so they went to the Internet.

“Here, we circumvent this limitation by harnessing the breadth of publicly available YouTube data to show that apes engage in rope spinning during solitary play.”

A few searches on YouTube provided the researchers with more than enough samples to convince them that gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans all like to spin around on ropes like human children at play or acrobats at work. (Watch some here.) There was also an interesting video (watch it here) of a male gorilla spinning and splashing wildly in a pool in an obvious altered state of wetness. After collecting over 40 videos, the scientists began collecting the data. On average, the apes revolved on a rope 5.5 times per episode of spinning at an average speed 1.5 revolutions per second and they generally repeated the activity three times. By observing the behavior of the apes, they determined that the gorillas achieved speeds sufficient to alter self-perception and situational awareness – make them dizzy, lightheaded and seeing the world spin around. In fact, it almost appeared that the apes knew what they were doing.

“Our findings show that great apes spin at speeds that induce physiological “highs” in humans. In untrained humans, spinning at similar rates inescapably produces severe dizziness (we invite the reader to try the observed average rotational speed, length or number of bouts performed by great apes reported here for instant validation). Notably, by comparing “recreational” spinning behaviour of apes to professional spinning in humans, our analyses were inherently conservative. 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.”

There’s something you don’t see every day in scientific studies – an invitation by the authors to “try it yourself.” Once they determined that the great apes are spinning intentionally to achieve an altered state, they looked at the different techniques. The authors found that orangutans, which are primarily tree dwellers, spun faster than ground-dwelling gorillas – suggesting that orangutans may have evolved to adapt against motion sickness or vertigo, thus requiring more spins to get dizzy. The also saw that ground-dwelling gorillas used their feet for spinning, while the tree-dwelling, long-armed orangutans relied on their hands. It also appeared that bonobos more frequently engaged in rope spinning than their close relatives, the chimpanzees. Future studies will look into those kinds of anomalies as well as search for more data which will allow the researchers to determine if there are any spinning differences due to age, sex or status within the group. They will also seek to find differences between great apes in captivity versus in the wild. Finally, they will look at other primates outside the great apes – during their research, they found videos of rope spinning by gibbons and monkeys.

If it feels good ... do it!

Does this common love of spinning into altered states bring humans and apes closer together? The study notes that that some accredited zoos are reported to have re-used equipment from children’s playgrounds as enrichment activities for apes – and the apes seem to love it. This reinforces the conclusion of the study:

“The findings reported here show that, like humans, great apes voluntarily seek and engage in altered experiences of self-perception and situational awareness. In our last common ancestors, these behaviours probably enhanced the nervous system and musculature, which helped to expand the range of action patterns, but also momentarily altered the inner world, range and patterns of perception, emotions, and (self- and other-) awareness of these individuals. The empirical evidence presented here provides some grounding for the intriguing possibility that the self-induced altered mental states of our ancestors could have shaped aspects of modern human behaviour and cognition, as well as mood manipulation and mental wellbeing.”

Now … go spin around like an ape. The researchers said it’s OK.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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