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Thursday, 21 March 2019

The Call of the Void

Apparently, I experience ‘High Place Phenomenon’.

As a climbing instructor, I’m used to people saying “I can’t go any further – I’m afraid of heights.”

And I always say, “So am I.”

Of course I am. Everyone is. We just develop strategies for managing that fear, and some manage it better than others. The first time I climb somewhere new, I can feel the fear eating away at me, like a voice in my head saying “Oh god, oh god, oh god.” My strategy is just to get to the top and get it finished – and once I’ve done that, going up again has lost its dauntingness.

It can even feel exciting. I’ve oftentimes sat on the edge of a ledge preparing to belay and realised how easily I could unclip and jump to my death. The thought of the rush of the world shooting past, the feeling of somehow having triumphed over my survival instincts and beaten nature, the sense of freedom, power, and the excitement tremble through me. I’m drugged up on adrenalin. My fingers move instinctively with the rope – and it’s a good job they do, because my mind is addled.
 
Looking down from above. Image © Thing We Don’t Know.

Does this sound familiar? 30% of people experience it at least once. The French call it l’appel du vide – the call of the void – and that is exactly what it feels like to me. A beckoning. As though someone were on my left shoulder... whispering, “Do it!”


I sound suicidal – why would I want to jump from height when I surely know will end in my demise? Freud called it “a drive to return to an inanimate state of existence”. But what if it’s not?

Researchers in Florida questioned 431 students about their experiences of High Place Phenomenon, their history of suicidal ideation, history of depression, and history of anxiety. And the results were unexpected: both those with and those without a history of suicidal ideation or depression experienced l’appel du vide, but the higher their levels of anxiety, the more frequently they got it.

I also fit their pattern – I have generalised anxiety. And I tend to experience it physically, coming out in hives when I’m stressed, or getting back or leg pain going on stage. In fact, people with anxiety tend to be more sensitive to internal physical signals like stress, stage fright, or fear of heights. Fear is, after all, a useful survival mechanism – it tells us to get back from that edge. But when you experience this fear as a physical impulse, an internal “beat”, it feels like you’ve just stopped yourself from toppling over.

The Florida researchers suggest that there’s a delay between the fast survival signal that tells you to get back from the edge and the logical deduction that tells you the edge is strong, you’re tied down with a rope, and you have three good anchor points. This signalling delay means you still get that physical impulse to get back from the edge, even when you know it’s safe – and this, they say, is l’appel du vide.

So what does this mean? Well, for me it means I have evidence I am afraid of heights. The researchers claim this impulse means you have good survival instincts and, far from feeling suicidal, want to live (always good to know).

But is it just a High Place Phenomenon?

No. The interesting thing is that you can get it all over the place, such as the urge to leap before an oncoming train or touch a sharp edge. These urges are more likely in people with impulsive characteristics. Impulsiveness can go hand in hand with anxiety (but doesn’t necessarily), and it seems they make each other worse. Impulsive or risky behaviour can lead to decisions that create worry, and anxiety can sometimes lead to irrational and poorly thought out decisions. Impulsiveness can also lead to harmful behaviours such as drug, alcohol or nicotine addictions, which means there are scientists out there looking for ways to fix or manage it. Amongst these are Queen Mary University, who created the “Are you more impulsive than a fish?” Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition zebra fish experiment. In this experiment, participants could compare their ability to wait for a reward with the patience of a fish.

We do need some impulsiveness; and it’s possible l‘appel du vide plays a different role in our survival: giving you the impulse to test and explore the dangers of heights and fast moving vehicles. Although our instincts primarily tell us to fear and withdraw from danger, we also have a crucial fascination with dangerous things, which allows us to learn about our enemies and overcome them. E.O. Wilson put it pretty well when he said,
“We’re not just afraid of predators. We’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters.” 
Which is maybe why I keep climbing.

References
why don't all references have links?

[1] Hames, Jennifer L., et al. "An urge to jump affirms the urge to live: An empirical examination of the high place phenomenon." Journal of affective disorders 136.3 (2012): 1114-1120.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent piece, going far beyond the normal domain of scicomm blog posts. I think OCD should be mentioned here as well – the urge described can have the nature of a compulsory thought.

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