The first time I recall experiencing the “call of the void” was when I was traversing the footbridge across the lake on my university campus. On my daily walk, I often experienced an urge to throw either myself, or my mobile phone, into the lake, and I wasn’t the only one. My friends on campus reported experiencing similar feelings as they crossed the lake. The urge has never really left me, it seems. Only this afternoon, twenty years after those initial feelings were first recognised, I experienced the same urge whilst sitting on the edge of the harbour in the city when I currently live. I watched the boats’ gentle rise and fall, observed a cormorant dive down to feed and wondered whether I might find myself making a similar journey myself. My legs turned to jelly. Good thing I was already sitting.
I had sometimes wondered if this peculiar lure of the void was connected to my history of depression and was in fact a form of suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts). Luckily, back in 2012, a psychological study was conducted by Jennifer L. Hames and her colleagues at Florida State University into this experience. Surveying 431 university students, Hames found what her team termed “High Place Phenomenon (HPP)” to be a widely experienced phenomenon. Around a third of those surveyed had felt an urge to jump, with those who had also had suicidal thoughts in the past, more likely to report HPP. However, over 50% of people who had never reported suicidal thoughts reported experiencing the phenomenon. So with no hard and fast link to suicidal ideation, what was causing this experience?
Turns out, it could be a survival instinct. Hames et al. had hypothesised that HPP was not related to a desire to do something destructive, but conversely was more symptomatic of a desire to live. The study found a correlation between anxiety sensitivity and HPP. For example, if you are more aware of a rapid pulse or shallow breathing in an anxiety-inducing situation, you are more likely to experience HPP. Standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down over a bridge, or putting yourself near large bodies of water triggers an anxiety response. In a sense, the more people are aware of their personal safety, the more anxiety they experience about potential threats to it. In the case of HPP, though, the anxiety related to the perceived threat is often interpreted as a desire to enact the threat, rather than a confirmation of the desire to live.
Psychologist Pauline Wallin suggests that the feelings caused by situations such as standing on a precipice (or drinking lukewarm coffee on a harbour wall) are actually a thrill, rather than a fear. Perhaps the urge to leap into the sea this afternoon was actually for the excitement of doing it, rather than the fear?
There doesn’t seem to have been any further exploration of high place phenomenon since the 2012 study, but it would be interesting to see if delving further into this area could enlighten us any further on things such as more passive suicidal ideation — the desire to die perhaps as a desire to live? In the meantime, will my next trip to the harbour see me dangling my feet over the water, or find me glued to the walls away from the edge? Either way, I’ll see the call of the void in a whole new light.
That weird urge to jump off a bridge, explained, Brian Alexander, March 13th 2012.