Do chimps have spiritual experiences?

This question was featured in the fall 2014 edition of Chimp Chatter, our quarterly newsletter.

Dear Patti,

Is there any evidence for spiritual experience in chimpanzees?

From, Ari

Dear Ari,

This is a fascinating question, and biologists have been speculating about its answer for years.  The brain regions believed to be responsible for spiritual experiences in humans are among the most primitive in the brain, and are shared by chimps like myself as well as many other mammals.  For example, some neurologists believe out-of-body experiences in humans arise from activity in the brain’s arousal system, which consists of several regions that are very similar in humans and other primates.  Other mystical sensations are likewise thought to involve areas of the limbic system that are shared by humans and chimpanzees.

There is also behavior to consider.  Field researchers have observed my cousins in the wild behaving in ways that seem to convey feelings of awe and wonder at the world around them.  For example, Jane Goodall has observed chimps in Gombe National Park displaying in unique ways around waterfalls.  They begin by swaying slowly and rhythmically from foot to foot, and then roll or throw rocks into the water and swing slowly from vines above the falls.  After one such display, a chimp called Freud sat calmly on a rock downstream and gazed at a waterfall for several minutes.

Goodall has observed similar displays in response to rainstorms and strong gusts of wind. Another researcher, anthropologist Jill Pruetz, observed displays or “dances” around forest fires.  Like the so-called “waterfall dances,” these displays are not directed towards other chimps.  Others have observed more passive behaviors that also indicate a strong interest in nature.  Goodall’s videographer, Bill Wallauer, describes adult chimps gathering around large pythons and gazing at them for up to half an hour.  The ethologist Frederik Kortlandt once observed a chimp watching a sunset for fifteen minutes, leaving only when the sky became dark.

None of these behaviors provide definitive evidence of spiritual experiences, and the answer to your question ultimately depends a lot on just how spirituality is defined.  For Goodall, it comes down to “being amazed at things outside yourself.”  Taken together, the observations I’ve described above certainly seem to indicate such a capacity.

Yours, Patti