Spinning great apes are the focus of new research that suggests getting dizzy may be a way of these animals altering their cognitive state. If true, it could indicate that we were seeking mind-altering activities before Homo sapiens even evolved, and raises questions about how their use may have influenced the evolution of the human mind.
Primates have been observed snacking on fermented foods in the wild with alcohol concentrations significant enough to cause drunkenness, and some suggest getting inebriated in this way may just be a fact of frugivorous life. Studying drug use in apes has become more complex as they are being used less and less in lab research, but a new study found a much funnier, less invasive way to explore primates’ love of altered states.
Using YouTube, the team tracked down 40 videos of spinning great apes, including orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. The longest spinner among them twirled for a dizzying 28 revolutions. There was also a genus difference when it came to speed, with orangutans spinning much faster compared to gorillas.
Of the 43 dismounts they observed, only in six cases did the apes remain on their feet. The rest of the time they either sat or laid down immediately, or did so after a few short steps, indicating the animals were experiencing symptoms of dizziness.
The researchers were able to work out the speeds at which the great apes were spinning and concluded it would be fast enough to induce a physiological high in a human. “Spinning at similar rates unescapably produces severe dizziness in untrained humans,” they explained, adding “we invite the reader to try the observed averages of rotational speed, length or bout number performed by great apes for instant validation.”
Whether spinning is more common among apes of a certain sex or age group is something the researchers say they’d like to investigate further. It’s possible spinning could be a way of communicating among certain apes, who speak an expressive language that you can try your hand at translating in a new game.
Beyond being an entertaining spin on drug use in the animal kingdom, the role of getting dizzy as a means of altering mental states asks interesting questions about if or how such behaviors influenced the evolution of the human mind.
“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,” said Dr Adriano Lameira, Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Warwick who co-led the study, in a statement.
“What we wanted to try to understand through this study is whether spinning can be studied as a primordial behaviour 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.”
“There are some interesting parallels that should be investigated further, in order to understand why people are motivated to engage in these behaviours. 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.