Why do humans like to get ‘high’? Our ape cousins may hold the evolutionary clue

The gateway to understanding why humans seek mind-altering experiences might have been opened by a viral YouTube video of a gorilla spinning himself around.

This and other videos of orangutangs, chimpanzees, bonobos and other gorillas were studied by researchers from the universities of Warwick and Birmingham in the UK, to learn why apes in both wild and captive situations, clasp cords and vines to repeatedly spin themselves around at speed.

Analyses drawn from these videos indicate our hominid cousins reach spinning speeds sufficient to induce physiological ‘highs’– enough to lead to dizziness – in humans.

In observing almost 40 videos of apes engaging in rope spinning, as well as six of humans performing similar acts, the scientists concluded these practices are likely done voluntarily to alter self-perception and situational awareness.

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As well as the last common ancestor between humans and other great apes using these behaviours to achieve a range of physiological outcomes, they also suggest these actions may have shaped parts of human behaviour.

“If this was indeed the case, it would carry huge consequences on how we think about modern human cognition capacities and emotional needs,” says the study’s co-author Dr Adriano Lameira.

“What we wanted to try to understand through this study is whether spinning can be studied as a primordial behaviour 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.”

Chasing that feeling

Several explanations as to why the primates in these videos were motivated to spin were considered by the researchers, which they suggest provides a footing to further research into the evolutionary benefits of mind-altering behaviours.

The motivations range from a desire to alleviate boredom (many videos show apes in captive environments) to play among juveniles.

After comparing footage to examples of human ballet, Hopak and other cultural dancing practices, the scientists themselves attempted to recreate the behaviours exhibited in videos by their hominid cousins.

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In several videos, the apes achieved high speeds and three sets of spins, which Lameira and co-researcher Dr Marcus Perlman found difficult to replicate. That might show a desire by the primates to keep the ‘high’ going.

“The primates deliberately keep spinning, despite starting to feel the effects of dizziness, until they are unable to keep their balance any longer,” Perlman says.

Evolutionary basis for mind changing behaviour, rather than substance-use

While modern humans may turn to a range of mind-bending substances to achieve a desired outcome, Lameira says the evolutionary basis for drug use falls away as the historic clock is wound back.

This is likely because early humans and hominids had sparing access to tools and materials to create their own drugs.

“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,” Lameira says.

“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.”

In the absence of drugs, behaviours like spinning disrupt the interactions between nerve signals from the eye and inner ear to the brain.

As a result, the brain perceives the blurring of the surrounding environment along with the sensations of dizziness, vertigo, and ‘head rushes’ that can only be countered by ongoing training similar to that undertaken by professional dancers and performers.

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