The call of the void

L’appel du vide – The call of the void.

When you are standing on the balcony of a tall building, looking down at the ground and on some track your brain says “what would it feel like to jump”.  When you are holding a kitchen knife thinking, “I wonder if this is sharp enough to cut myself with”.  When you are waiting for a train and your brain asks, “what would it be like to step in front of that train?”.  Maybe it’s happened with rope around your neck, or power tools, or what if I take all the pills in the bottle.  Or touch these wires together, or crash the plane, crash the car, just veer off.  Lean over the cliff…  Try to anger the snake, stick my fingers in the moving fan…  Or the acid.  Or the fire.

There’s a strange phenomenon where our brains seem to do this, “I wonder what the consequences of this dangerous thing are”.  And we don’t know why it happens.  There has only been one paper (sorry it’s behind a paywall) on the concept.  Where all they really did is identify it.  I quite like the paper for quoting both (“You know that feeling you get when you’re standing in a high place… sudden urge to jump?… I don’t have it” (Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 2011). And (a drive to return to an inanimate state of existence; Freud, 1922).

Taking a look at their method; they surveyed 431 undergraduates for their experiences of what they coined HPP (High Place Phenomenon).  They found that 30% of their constituents have experienced HPP, and tried to measure if it was related to anxiety or suicide.  They also proposed a theory.

…we propose that at its core, the experience of the high place phenomenon stems from the misinterpretation of a safety or survival signal. (e.g., “back up, you might fall”)

I want to believe it, but today there are Literally no other papers on the topic.  And no evidence either way.  So all I can say is – We don’t really know.  s’weird.  Dunno.

This week I met someone who uncomfortably described their experience of toying with L’appel du vide.  I explained to them how this is a common and confusing phenomenon, and to their relief said, “it’s not like I want to jump!“.   Around 5 years ago (before I knew it’s name) an old friend recounting the experience of living and wondering what it was like to step in front of moving busses (with discomfort), any time she was near a bus.  I have coaxed a friend out of the middle of a road (they weren’t drunk and weren’t on drugs at the time).  And dragged friends out of the ocean.  I have it with knives, in a way that borderlines OCD behaviour.  The desire to look at and examine the sharp edges.

What I do know is this.  It’s normal.  Very normal.  Even if it’s not 30% of the population, it could easily be 10 or 20%.  Everyone has a right to know that it happens, and it’s normal and you’re not broken if you experience it.  Just as common a shared human experience as common dreams like your teeth falling out, or of flying, running away from groups of people, or being underwater.  Or the experience of rehearsing what you want to say before making a phone call.  Or walking into a room for a reason and forgetting what it was.

Next time you are struck with the L’appel du vide, don’t get uncomfortable.  Accept that it’s a neat thing that brains do, and it’s harmless.  Experience it.  And together with me – wonder why.  Wonder what evolutionary benefit has given so many of us the L’appel du vide.  

And be careful.

Meta: this took one hour to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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