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Great apes spin to experience altered states of mind

It seems that spinning around in order to get dizzy is a universal human phenomenon. Children do it on swings, merry-go-rounds and carousels, while adults whirl during dances, circus acts and trances. In fact, some people earn their living by performing pirouettes, such as ballet dancers and suspended rope acts, while Ukrainian hopak dancers and Sufi whirling dervishes attest to the cultural and religious significance of spinning around.

Thanks to the structure of our inner ears, spinning around leads to the perception of a spinning world, light-headedness, head rushes, elation and altered states of mind, mood and consciousness. And, after scientists from the University of Warwick and the University of Birmingham became aware of a viral video of a male gorilla spinning in a pool, they wondered whether the universal human enjoyment of twirling might have ancient roots in our ancestors and whether they perhaps also sought the altered mental states induced by spinning. 

“Every culture has found a way of evading reality through dedicated and special rituals, practices, or ceremonies,” said co-lead author Dr. Adriano Lameira. “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. If this was indeed the case, it would carry huge consequences for how we think about modern human cognition capacities and emotional needs.” 

The scientists searched for YouTube videos showing apes spinning voluntarily. They identified 40 such videos that showed chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas or orangutans spinning around on the end of a rope. The footage showed a total of 132 bouts of spinning, composed of a total of 709 revolutions. The longest bout of spinning involved 28 revolutions, and the fastest revolution was measured at 5 rps. 

The researchers found that on average, the primates in the videos revolved 5.5 times per spinning episode, with an average speed of 1.5 revolutions per second. The primates carried out three consecutive spins, on average. When compared with the spinning speeds of professional dancers and circus artists, the apes managed to rotate just as fast. But did they also suffer the consequences of dizziness and light headedness?

“Spinning alters our state of consciousness, it messes with our body-mind responsiveness and coordination, which make us feel sick, lightheaded, and even elated as in the case on children playing on merry-go-rounds, spinner-wheels, and carousels,” explained Dr. Lameira.

“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 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 results showed that, when apes spun for a higher number of revolutions, they were more likely to let go of the rope or let it go slack at the end of the bout, suggesting that they experienced dizziness. “Closer inspection of the 43 cases when individuals released the rope revealed further evidence of dizziness: in 30 of the bouts, the animal immediately sat or laid down; in seven of the bouts, the animal moved a short distance and then sat or laid down; and in only six bouts did the animal keep its balance and remain on its feet,” said the researchers.

When the team members self-experimented by spinning at these speeds and durations, they found it difficult to achieve the third bout of spins that the apes succeeded at, due to the induced dizziness. The researchers concluded that the apes continued spinning until they reach a state of dizziness.

“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 study co-lead author Dr. Marcus Perlman.

Although the spinning apes could not verify this, the dizziness was likely to be accompanied by an altered state of mind. Previous studies which attempted to understand human motivation for self-inducing dizziness focused on the use of substances, such as alcohol or drugs. It is not known whether these substances were available to our human ancestors, but it is possible that they used spinning and induced dizziness to achieve alternative views of the world. The scientists say this new study could be more relevant to explain the role of altered states on the evolution of the human mind.  

“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,” explained Dr. Lameira. “For example, people may have had access to grapes, but you cannot assume they have the tools or the knowledge to create wine.” 

The experts say that further research is needed to understand primates’ motivations for engaging in these behaviors, to understand why our own ancestors might also have been driven to seek out these 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. But it could also be a play behaviour. 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,” said Dr. Lameira.

“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 research is published in the journal Primates.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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