The urge to jump or high place phenomenon apparently springs from a distortion of our perceptions. Lab tests have shown that people estimate disgusting things like feces to be closer than they really are, or they underestimate the time when they abruptly encountered a snake, as compared to when they met a butterfly.
Of course the French have a term for it – L’Appel du Vide, which translates to call of the void. As you stand on the edge of your balcony, you feel the sense of precariousness creeping up on you… the void or the abyss beckons you. Some people instead describe the urge to jump as a pull from beneath.
A phobia or an irrational fear of something has always been fundamentally associated with emotional problems, anxiety or trauma. Acrophobia, or the fear of heights, is one of the most common phobias; according to an estimate, it afflicts 1 in 20 people.
However, a fear of snakes would compel me to run away from them. The urge to jump therefore seems to be paradoxical; if these people despise heights, why would they have a desire to leap?
A Freudian would claim that this urge represents their repressed thoughts about contemplating suicide. This makes sense when we ask someone to justify the contrary claim; in other words, if one can discern danger from the recoiling of his hand from a hot cup, why do we feel the need to jump when we’re fully protected by the railings on a balcony? Surely, it means that you want to jump, right?
However, Freudians are wrong about many things, including this. Research in cognitive science and clinical psychology show that the urge to jump is linked to our vestibular system, fear and cognition.
High Place Phenomenon
Jennifer Hames, a clinical psychologist at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in suicidal behavior, calls it the High Place Phenomenon (HPP). In a remarkable study including 431 subjects, she and her colleagues found that half of them had experienced the urge to jump in their lives, even though they had never considered suicide. This refutes any superficial claim mentioned above.
The urge apparently springs from a distortion of our perceptions. Lab tests have shown that people estimate disgusting things like feces to be closer than they really are, or they underestimate the time when they abruptly encountered a snake, as compared to when they met a butterfly. Another example is believing that the width of a plank on which they are walking is smaller than it really is.
Similarly, we overestimate vertical distances. Surprisingly, this distance bias is absent when it comes to horizontal distances. This vertical bias tends to make heights scarier. As the height increases, so does our fear of it. The uneasiness we feel on a ledge is eerily reminiscent of motion sickness.
Motion sickness is caused by a dissonance or conflict between different sensory systems that are crucial for sustaining balance. The symptoms mainly arise due to a conflict between our visual and vestibular systems. The vestibular system is responsible for spatial orientation, posture adjustments and balance. The apparatus contains what is known as an utricle and a saccule, which detect gravity for vertical orientation and three perpendicular canals filled with fluid to detect rotational movement.
A conflict is triggered when the vestibular system senses motion, but the visual system does not, or vice versa. For the former, consider traveling on a boat. The vestibular system senses motion as we rock on the waves, but the eyes do not, which elicits nausea.
For the latter, consider standing in a stationary bus while another bus moves forward in your line of sight. The visual system detects movement, fooling us for a moment to believe that we are moving. However, the vestibular system rightly disagrees. This illusion invokes some uneasiness, although subsequently, higher thinking and our memory help us to dismiss these incongruities and instill lucidity.
The dissonance causes our balance to be disrupted. This is why sustaining balance requires arduous practice, like all the practice that a professional dancer requires. People who suffer from poor postural control are often reported to be strongly compelled to jump, more so than people with superior footing.
One lab test to measure postural control partially resembles a drunk driving test. Subjects are simply asked to walk in a straight line. However, a more difficult test, which you can perform yourself, is to stand barefoot with your left foot directly in front of your right such that the heel touches the toe. Now cross your hands over your chest, close your eyes and try to hold this posture for two minutes.
A piece of cake, right? Many subjects could only do this for an average of 40 seconds! The ones who persisted for two or more minutes were, as you might have guessed, less afraid of heights.
The impediments offered by distorted visual perception or overestimation, poor postural control, and flawed vestibular signaling fuel the apprehension that we feel at the edge of steep heights.
The Brain is Misinterpreted Safety signals
After her study, Hames describes the urge to jump as a result of the conscious brain misinterpreting alarm signals sent from the safety centers of the brain. This misinterpretation is a consequence of a delay in processing information.
The safety centers of the brain are the parts that detect fear and anxiety, this prominently includes the amygdala. The amygdala, a subconscious circuitry, is impulsive and operates swiftly, immediately transmitting an alarm signal to the cortex in response to a stimulus that it deems a potential threat.
However, the cortex processes information relatively slowly. It recognizes the signal but is unsure of the reason it was transmitted. This uncertainty is responsible for our sense of perturbation on a ledge.
This uncertainty can be primarily traced to the activation of the amygdala. It is, therefore, no surprise that people who felt the urge to jump were often more anxious. In fact, the anxiety wasn’t only limited to heights; these people illustrated a propensity to worry about other issues too! This was evident in their sweaty palms, elevated heartbeat and other common physiological symptoms of anxiety.
So, is it necessarily a bad thing to possess a distorted perception or severe anxiety about falling to your death?
Of course not! These signals force you to retreat to a safer place. They are your survival instincts. Jeanine Stefanucci, a leading psychologist, defends those who feel despair on the edge by assuring them that “taking a step back is a good thing.”