Gorillas enjoy getting dizzy

Gorillas enjoy spinning, and it might tell us something about human evolution
17 March 2023

Interview with 

Marcus Perlman, University of Birmingham




Dizziness is a sensory paradox. As we grow older, it’s usually associated with feeling out of sorts or unwell, but while we’re young, it’s a state of mind many children seem to actively strive to achieve, whether that be through playground equipment or theme park rides. Well, it turns out that reaching this altered state of mind is not unique to us humans, as researchers at the Universities of Warwick and Birmingham have been finding out. They’ve been observing the thrill-seeking tendencies of gorillas by trawling through online videos and noting how many rotations and for how long our fellow primates are spinning. James Tytko asked Marcus Perlman what gave him the idea that apes engaging in such behaviours might be significant…

Marcus - I guess, it was about a decade ago, even more than that. There was a viral video of a gorilla named Zola who did some impressive spinning. And then Zola appeared again more recently, maybe about five years ago. And another viral video spinning behavior has been documented as a gesture that apes use. But in the case of Zola, it looked like he was spinning around as part of a creative display. And it looked like he was having a lot of fun. So that video made me start to wonder, and then my co-author, Adriano Lameira, made us start to wonder how widespread this behaviour is. What is the range of variability in this kind of spinning behavior? And so we started searching YouTube and found lots of videos of spinning apes.

James - When I'm watching animal videos on YouTube, I'm told it's procrastinating. But when you are doing it's research apparently. How's that fair? What did you infer then? I've seen the video you're referencing and as you say, it's undeniable that Zola's having a lot of fun.

Marcus - Yeah. It seems like from what we've observed, they specifically engage in rope spitting, maybe because it's fun and stimulating, but certainly as a consequence they get dizzy very often. They will spin around for a minute or so, kind of let go of the rope, stumble around, fall, and then jump up and do it again and repeat. It's not clear whether the spinning is stimulating and fun, and then the dizziness is a consequence of that, or whether the dizziness is part of the stimulation and the fun.

James - And it does raise the psychological, perhaps even philosophical, questions as to why apes and by extension us, why we feel the urge to engage in these mind altering behaviors because it's something almost universal across humanity and reaching a different sort of consciousness.

Marcus - Yeah, I mean, the way I sort of think of it is that by spinning around and altering your perceptual experience and causing them subsequently, the world continues to spin around. I think that sort of highlights the subjectivity of our experience. And maybe that insight allows us to kind of break free out of the blinders that we normally have in our daily experience.

James - And is it significant then that these altered states of mind might be something that our evolutionary ancestors have passed down to us? I suppose the question is whether this is been observed in other animals other than observed in primates.

Marcus - I was searching around last night with my partner and we were looking at videos of animals. 'Doing research'. And we found a grizzly bear on its side rolling down the hill. And it looked like it was having fun, whether, you can infer that it was probably getting dizzy. We also found a panda bear rolling, but sort of somersaulting headfirst and rolling down the hill. So I think the behavior probably extends to other mammals, at least now the rope spinning in particular, I think is probably something that is more special to primates. Really gives the animal the leverage to spin fast and to spin for repeated rotations in a way that gets you dizzy, I think in a way that it's harder to do without, without the use of a rope.


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