Spinning apes offer insights into the origin of mood manipulation in humans

Great apes purposefully trying to become dizzy may hint at a primordial habit of our ancestors.
Sade Agard
Stock image of a young mountain gorilla hanging on a bamboo trunk.
Stock image of a young mountain gorilla hanging on a bamboo trunk.


The discovery of Great apes deliberately spinning themselves to make themselves dizzy could provide clues on the human need for mind-altering experiences, according to a paper published in Primates on March 13.

"Every culture has found a way of evading reality through dedicated and special rituals, practices, or ceremonies," said co-leader Dr. Adriano Lameira, Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Warwick, in a press release

"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."

The research team stumbled upon a popular YouTube video of a male gorilla spinning in a pool, and as they searched further on YouTube, they found other examples of spinning behavior in gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. 

After analyzing over 40 online videos, the researchers found that, on average, the primates revolved 5.5 times per spinning episode, with an average speed of 1.5 circles per second. 

What's the connection between humans and spinning apes?

The researchers set out to see whether spinning may be analyzed as a primordial habit our ancestors could have engaged in too. Perhaps as a means to access different mental states.

"If all great apes seek dizziness, then our ancestors are also highly likely to have done so," Lameira explained. 

They compared the videos to purposeful human twirls, such as ballet dancing, traditional Hopak dancing, whirling dervishes, and aerial silks performances. 

While self-experimented with spinning at these speeds and times, the team found achieving the third bout of spins (as the great apes did) challenging. At this point, the apes in the videos were visibly disoriented 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 are unable to keep their balance any longer," explained Dr. Marcus Perlman, who co-led the research. 

"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," Dr. Lameira added.

Still, he also argued that it could also be a play behavior bringing children's playgrounds to attention. "almost all the playground apparatus – swings, slides, seesaws and roundabouts or merry-go-rounds – are all designed to challenge your balance or disrupt the body-mind responses."

 "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," Lameria concluded.