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Great Apes Alter Their Mental States by Spinning Rapidly

New research on captive apes supports what Jane Goodall observed in the wild.

Key points

  • We're not alone in inducing highs.
  • We have a lot to learn about the emotional lives of animals during normal and altered states of consciousness.
  • What do these data say about the spiritual lives of great apes?

A recent open-access research paper published in the journal Primates by psychologist Adriano Lameira and linguistics professor Marcus Perlman called "Great Apes Reach Momentary Altered Mental States by Spinning" caught my attention because of the topic that was discussed for captive great apes and because of Jane Goodall's observations of similar behaviors in wild chimpanzees.1,2

Lameira and Perlman analyzed 40 YouTube videos of 132 episodes of captive apes rope spinning, consisting of 709 rotations that mainly occurred during solitary play. They focused on the rotational speeds and duration of spinning by chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos and compared the speeds of spinning with how humans spin.

Source: From Great Apes Reach Momentary Altered Mental States by Spinning, open access
Source: From Great Apes Reach Momentary Altered Mental States by Spinning, open access

Summarizing their work Lameira and Perlman wrote, "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."

Spinning-induced "highs" and spirituality: We are not alone

Ishara Kasthuriarachchi/Pexels
Source: Ishara Kasthuriarachchi/Pexels

What do these data say about their spiritual lives? Do animals marvel at their surroundings, have a sense of awe when they see a rainbow, find themselves by a waterfall, or ponder their environs? Do they ask where does lightning come from? Do they go into a "zone" when they play with others, forgetting about everything else save for the joy of playing?

The data collected in this study are interesting and important. The researchers note, "Our findings show that great apes spin at speeds that induce physiological 'highs' in humans." They also suggest, "like humans, great apes voluntarily seek and engage in altered experiences of self-perception and situational awareness."

Their data and discussions reminded me of Jane Goodall's observations of wild chimpanzees engaging in what she called "waterfall dances."2 Goodall wondered whether these dances are indicative of religious behavior, precursors of religious ritual. She describes a chimpanzee approaching one of these falls with slightly bristled hair, a sign of heightened arousal: "As he gets closer, and the roar of the falling water gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he may perform a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls. Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. This 'waterfall dance' may last 10 or 15 minutes."

Chimpanzees also dance at the onset of heavy rains and during violent gusts of wind. Goodall asks, "Is it not possible that these performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe? After a waterfall display, the performer may sit on a rock, his eyes following the falling water. What is it, this water?" In June 2006, Jane and I visited the Mona Foundation’s chimpanzee sanctuary near Girona, Spain. We were told that Marco, one of the rescued chimpanzees, does a dance during thunderstorms in which he looks like he’s in a trance.

These are wonderful and important questions and my observations of many different wild animals as well as companion dogs has made me ask similar questions. My own and other dogs often stare into space for minutes on end and always wonder what they’re thinking and feeling. Some years ago, a woman at a local dog park asked me similar questions and told me her dog Maxine looked mesmerized and “locked into” sunsets of a particular kind—when there was an orange sun highlighted against milky white clouds—and Maxine never showed such focus and awe for other sunsets.

Goodall admits that she’d love to get into their minds even for a few moments. I would too and would love to know what Maxine was thinking and feeling when she saw specific sunsets. It would be worth years of research to discover what animals see and feel when they look at the stars.

Perhaps numerous animals engage in these rituals but we haven't been lucky enough to see them. Even if they are rare, they are important to note and study. I hope to see more research on this fascinating and important topic.

It's highly likely we are not alone in the arena of intentionally induced altered states of consciousness. We still have much to learn about the emotional lives of animals during normal and altered states of consciousness.


1) The abstract for this paper reads: Among animals, humans stand out in their consummate propensity to self-induce altered states of mind. Archaeology, history, and ethnography show these activities have taken place since the beginnings of civilization, yet their role in the emergence and evolution of the human mind itself remains debatable. The means through which modern humans actively alter their experience of self and reality frequently depend on psychoactive substances, but it is uncertain whether psychedelics or other drugs were part of the ecology or culture of pre-human ancestors. Moreover, (nonhuman) great apes in captivity are currently being retired from medical research, rendering comparative approaches thus far impracticable. 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. When spinning, the apes achieved speeds sufficient to alter self-perception and situational awareness that were comparable to those tapped for transcendent experiences in humans (e.g. Sufi whirling), and the number of revolutions spun predicted behavioural evidence for dizziness. Thus, spinning serves as a self-sufficient means of changing body-mind responsiveness in hominids. A proclivity for such experiences is shared between humans and great apes. It provides an entry point for the comparative study of the mechanisms, functions, and adaptive value of altered states of mind in human evolution.

2) Jane Goodall. Primate spirituality. In The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. edited by B. Taylor. Thoemmes Continuum, New York. Pp. 1303-1306. 2005. (Frankly, I was surprised not to see a reference to Goodall's seminal observations. I only mention this because of numerous emails in which people asked me about the relationship of this study of captive apes to Goodall's observations in the wild.)

Great apes deliberately spin to become dizzy, say researchers.

Do Animals Have Spiritual Experiences? Yes, They Do.

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