Bored apes give it a whirl

3 minute read

Primates like to spin themselves dizzy, apparently just for kicks.

To tackle the scourge of treatment-resistant depression, some serious coin has been put into exploring the relationship between altered mental states, mood and the perception of reality.

Six weeks ago, for example, Swinburne signed a $5 million clinical trial research agreement with Woke Pharmaceuticals. The brief was to examine the promise of the active ingredient in magic mushrooms to address depression that won’t respond to either psychotherapy or medication.

Meanwhile, academics from Warwick and Birmingham universities in the UK have been doing some research of their own. In an exciting development, the Brummies have discovered that great apes deliberately spin themselves around – like a kid in an office chair – so they experience a feeling of dizziness.

“There could be a link to mental health here, as the primates we observed engaging in this behaviour were mostly captive individuals, who may be bored and trying to stimulate their senses in some way,” said Dr Marcus Perlman, lecturer at Birmingham’s English language and linguistics department, who co-led the research. 

According to Birmingham uni, the research team “came across a viral video of a male gorilla spinning in a pool” – maybe this one. A deeper dive into the ocean of weirdness that is YouTube yielded more vids of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans, all engaged in spinning behaviour.

The team compared the speed of the circling simians, finding that while holding onto a rope they could turn as fast as professional human dancers, circus artists and even the “Whirling Dervish” Sufi sect who spin to achieve a sort of spiritual trance. 

The researchers then self-experimented spinning at these speeds but found it difficult to achieve the speed of the apes, who were noticeably dizzy at the end of their antics and likely to lose their balance or fall down.

“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,” said Dr Adriano Lameira, an associate psychology professor at the University of Warwick and also a co-leader of the study.

“The parallel between what the apes were doing and what humans do was beyond coincidental.”

The links between primates who rotate for fun and the therapeutic use of altered states to tackle treatment-resistant depression still need peeling back a bit.

Sending story tips to will make us giddy with excitement.

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