Researchers believe that great apes twirl around on purpose to make themselves dizzy.
The study, from the Universities of Warwick and Birmingham, may provide evidence that people develop a desire to seek altered states of mind and actively manipulate their mood and perception of reality.
Researchers watched online videos of great apes — gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans — spinning to intentionally make themselves dizzy.
“Every culture has found a way to evade reality through dedicated and particular rituals, practices, or ceremonies,” said Dr. Adriano Lameira, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Warwick, who co-led the study.
“This human trait of seeking altered states is so universal historically and culturally that it raises the intriguing possibility that this is something that may have been inherited from our evolutionary ancestors.
“If this were indeed the case, it would have tremendous implications for how we think about modern human perceptual abilities and emotional needs.”
The research team analyzed 40 videos and found that the primates rotated an average of 5.5 times per rotation episode, at an average speed of 1.5 rotations per second. They did this three times on average.
The study compared spinning speeds and found that the animals can spin while holding a rope as fast as professional human dancers and circus performers — as well as dervish Muslims who participate in whirling ceremonies to achieve a spiritual trance.
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dr Lameira added: “Spinning alters our state of consciousness, it disrupts our body-mind responsiveness and coordination, making us feel sick, light-headed and even elated, as in the case of children playing in roundabouts, spinner-wheels and merry-go-rounds .”
He continued, “If all great apes seek dizziness, then most likely our ancestors did, too.
“We asked ourselves what role these behaviors play in the formation of the human mind.
“The monkeys did this purposefully, almost as if they were dancing – a mechanism known in humans that generally facilitates mood regulation, social bonding and heightens the senses and is based on rotational movements.
“The parallel between what the apes did and what humans did was more than coincidental.”
Monkeys “deliberately keep turning despite being dizzy”
In videos in which the animals used rope or vines to spin, they spun the fastest and the longest, the study found.
The researchers also tried spinning at these speeds and times themselves, and found it difficult to achieve the third round of spins at these speeds — monkeys became noticeably dizzy at this point in the video, and they would likely lose their balance and fall.
“This would suggest that although the primates begin to feel the effects of vertigo until they are unable to keep their balance, they continue to turn on purpose,” explains Dr. Marcus Perlman, Lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s Department of English Language and Linguistics, who co-led the research.
The study could explain the role of altered states in the evolution of the human mind
While previous studies attempting to understand human motivation for self-induced dizziness have focused on the use of substances such as alcohol or drugs, it is uncertain whether these or other substances would have been accessible to human ancestors.
The researchers said this study may be more relevant in explaining the role of altered states in the evolution of the human mind.
dr Lameira said: “The further back in human history you go, the less certain we can be about the role that substance-induced experiences have played in our evolution.
“It’s not clear if our ancestors had access to mind-altering substances, or if they had the tools and knowledge to make the substance.
“For example, humans may have had access to grapes, but cannot be assumed to have the tools or knowledge to make wine.”
The researchers say more research is needed to understand the animals’ motivation to engage in the spinning behavior.
The study was published in the Primates Journal.