In 2011 Marcus Perlman saw a YouTube video of a gorilla named Zola spinning in circles while playing in a water puddle at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada. In 2017 he noticed Zola again, this time in a viral video from the Dallas Zoo in Texas. Zola whirled in a blue plastic kiddie pool as the water splashed up around him.

Perlman, a lecturer in English language and linguistics at the University of Birmingham in England, had researched communicative gesturing, and the videos sparked his curiosity about this form of great ape behavior. He went on to find around 400 more clips of spinning apes. “They spin pirouettes on their feet; they do backflips; they roll on their side; they do somersaults forward; they roll down hills, spin on ropes,” Perlman says.

Adriano Lameira, a primatologist and evolutionary psychologist at England’s University of Warwick, was also fascinated by online videos of apes spinning. He and Perlman co-authored a paper in Primates that focuses on primate spinning—specifically, on rope twirls. In the films they analyzed, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos hung by their hands from ropes or vines and turned through the air at dizzying speeds.

At first glance, such spinning might look like a stereotypy: repetitive movement that some animals engage in when bored. But to Lameira, the apparent playfulness made it seem instead like an enriching and creative activity. The apes seemed to lose themselves in their movements. They would let go of the rope and topple over from unsteadiness—and then get up and spin again and again.

Cat Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, who wasn’t involved in the study, says she has encountered plenty of spinning in her work with wild chimpanzees and gorillas. “It’s one of their favorite kinds of play when they’re young,” she says. Gorillas in particular “literally spin themselves until they kind of drop and fall over from dizziness,” Hobaiter adds.

In their paper, Lameira and Perlman document the spinning and speculate about what that drive to spin means in our closest animal relatives. Many great apes in captivity are being retired from medical research, making the hundreds of videos in existence an invaluable resource. “YouTube provided a volume of data that we would not have ever been able to collect,” Lameira says.

Spinning turns the world into a blur for apes—including humans. The movement disrupts humans’ vestibular system, which senses changes in motion, orientation, position and body speed. We might feel dizzy or light-headed, get a head rush, and act elated or giggly. Perhaps for this reason, spinning is a staple of children’s play. Human children indulge in spinner bowls at playgrounds and flock to merry-go-rounds and carnival rides that spin them through the air. For many autistic people, spinning serves as self-stimulation. In some orders of Sufism, a branch of Islam, dervishes spin in a form of religious dancing that induces a spiritual and trancelike state. “Spinning is proactively tapped for rapture,” Lameira and Perlman write in their study.

The speed of the apes’ rope spinning was comparable to that of pirouettes in professional ballet, the turning of Ukrainian hopak dancers, Sufi dervishes and suspended spinning-rope acts by circus artists. The apes spun at 1.43 revolutions per second on average, and the fastest speed they reached was 3.3 turns per second. These are speeds that can induce physiological “highs” in humans.

Humans seek out altered mental states to lose their senses of self and time, says Marc Wittmann, a psychologist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Germany and author of the 2018 book Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Out of Time and Self. “When we are present-oriented, without past and future rumination, we feel much better.”

But Perlman says it’s a big jump to imagine gorillas experiencing a psychedelic or spiritual experience, even if we share physiology suggestive of similar physical effects. The world probably keeps spinning around these primates when they finally come to a stop, Hobaiter says—but we don’t know whether they enjoy and seek out that feeling.

And as Annika Paukner, a comparative psychologist at Nottingham Trent University in England, notes, “even if spinning leads to altered mental states in humans, that doesn’t mean that apes will experience the same kind of altered mental states.” Dogs, horses and some birds also spin, she points out, and by focusing only on great apes, we could be missing other explanations for this behavior. 

The researchers say their next steps could evaluate whether spinning is more common in gorillas compared with other apes and investigate twirling preferences by sex or age. They are also intrigued by the origins of spinning. “I can imagine this being sort of elaborated over millennia and over the course of human evolution,” Perlman says. “That basic drive to seek altered perception and altered mental states could be common to our primate cousins.” Many primate species eat fermented foods, and it’s possible they get a bit soused, researchers have documented.

Spinning and consuming fermented fruit both relate to larger questions about how animals amuse themselves and what their pastimes might say about the experience of being a gorilla or chimp. In a 2015 Current Biology paper entitled “The What as well as the Why of Animal Fun,” Richard Byrne, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of St. Andrews, wrote that in the past, “suggesting that animals might enjoy themselves was seen as anathema to science.” Chimpanzees are seen playing with objects. But when we pay more attention to what they’re actually doing when immersed in play, more about their cognition could be revealed, Byrne wrote. Similarly, Lameira hopes that studying spinning might be one way to investigate if ancestors in the primate evolutionary line were regulating their mood by deviating from their normal awake states just for the thrill of it.

Seeing apes spin raises the possibility that nonhuman primates might indulge in the delight of manipulating their normal perceptual states, similarly to humans who change consciousness through drugs or physical activities. “It highlights the subjectivity of experience,” Perlman says, “and it opens up that maybe there are different perspectives on reality—not that they are necessarily thinking deeply about this difference.”

Editor’s Note (6/8/23): A version of this article entitled “Why We Spin” was adapted for inclusion in the July/August 2023 issue of Scientific American. This text reflects that version, with the addition of some material that was abridged for print.