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

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

Ever feel like jumping off a cliff for no reason? Maria Mandic explores the fascinating science behind why we often find ourselves contemplating doing insanely dangerous things

Standing at the top of the Eiffel tower on a beautiful, sunny day in Paris, my first thought was ‘I could jump’. Not ‘What a stunning view of a culturally rich metropolis’ or ‘I wonder what the City of Light looks like at nighttime’, but ‘I could jump off of this tower in just one leap’, and I wondered why. A quick search on Google showed me that I wasn’t alone. There were numerous paranoid reddit threads, tumblr posts and definitions, from Collins to Urban Dictionary, demanding explanations for their seemingly suicidal urges.

Digging a little deeper, driven mostly by morbid curiosity but also by a slight doubt of my own sanity, I found that the temptation we feel when we’re standing on the edge of a cliff to take a step forwards and fall into oblivion is so common that the French actually have a name for it; ‘L’appel du Vide’. When translated into English, it means ‘Call of the Void’ and unlike most foreign idioms, this one makes sense even when translated literally.

Some more research yielded scholarly articles, which gave the French phrase a proper English translation termed ‘High Place Phenomenon’ (HPP). A study conducted in 2012 at Florida State University on 431 undergraduate college students investigated the volunteers’ experience with HPP, depressive and anxiety symptoms, suicidal ideation and behavioural history.

The original explanation for the phenomenon was suicidal ideation but when such a high number of participants reported feelings associated with what is now known as HPP, even those with no history of suicidal thoughts, the idea of HPP was born. The study reported experiences of HPP with those who have suicidal thoughts and those who don’t, suggesting this was a concept separate from suicide ideation and perhaps something most people experience in their lifetime.

However, the phrase High Place Phenomenon is misleading. The same concept can be applied to the impulse you get when driving and you feel the need to suddenly swerve and crash into a tree or abruptly jerk the steering wheel to the left on a bridge. I’m sure you are familiar with the scenario in a tube station, you see the train approaching the platform, you’re near the tunnel it’s exiting and you feel your knees stiffen as the impulse to jump in front of the train flashes through your mind. These examples still adhere to the concept of HPP as the apparent suicidal intention is still present, but in different forms of self-destruction.

The study suggested the reason for this phenomenon was a misinterpretation of a safety or survival signal, with fear playing a huge role. If an individual is more sensitive to these safety signals, then they will be more likely to experience the phenomenon. This is especially true for people with higher levels of anxiety as they have a higher tendency to misinterpret environmental and bodily signals. For example, when I was walking on top of the Eiffel tower, I wandered near to the edge where there’s a railing and metal cage enclosing the space. As I leaned into the cage I saw the sharp drop from the top of the tower to the ground and inadvertently stepped back. I then became aware of the fact that I wasn’t in any actual danger as it was perfectly safe. So why did my mind tell my body to step backwards? It could be because I wanted to jump and my brain was in fact saving me.

This supports the previous study’s title ‘An urge to jump affirms the urge to live’, as the experience of the phenomenon could in fact reflect an individual’s sensitivity to internal signals which in turn affirms their will to live. The idea put forward by Sigmund Freud of a “death wish” where he stated that ‘everything living dies for internal reasons’ and ‘the aim of all life is death’ could explain the impulse to jump off of high places. It is proposed that the phenomenon actually demonstrates the strength of the survival instinct. Therefore, even with Freud’s proposal of such emotions being present in the human brain, we continue to avoid danger when confronted with the Call of the Void.

‘L’appel du vide’ – The call of the void Reviewed by on February 11, 2016 .

Ever feel like jumping off a cliff for no reason? Maria Mandic explores the fascinating science behind why we often find ourselves contemplating doing insanely dangerous things

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16 COMMENTS

  • The Red Fox

    It’s a very common feeling, reoccurring, and quite hard to discuss with others, but it’s certainly a real one. Having it doesn’t mean you want to die so much as an intrusive thought or that little rush of adrenaline happens. Nevertheless, I came back to this article over a year later because it still holds true to form.

  • The Blue Hyena

    I find this fascinating and I’m so glad I found out there’s a name for it. As with most things, we could be over-analysing it. After all, couldn’t it just be morbid curiosity?
    The ‘What If’ thought, the testing of boundaries and the affirming of power of choice in our lives – ‘I COULD do this…’ it’s powerful.

  • Amanda foster

    I have had this feeling many times in many different ways. It’s something I could never bring myself to talk about and it’s good to know I’m not alone or insane

  • Contemplation

    To have a name for this was exceptionally relieving. And to know others are the same is even more so. I have had this issue for many years; and have never been able to speak of it without people looking at me like I’ve lost my sanity. I’d ask ‘Can you feel that?’ and I’d get blank looks of ‘Do I need to call an ambulance?’

    Everything from standing on a glass floor in a spire; looking down and thinking “I wonder if I could break this glass while I’m standing on it.” to being on a boat and thinking “If I jump off now; I wonder how long I would last.” it has been a morbid and stressful curiosity I’ve long suppressed. And it was never just for myself; but for others too. “What if I push them off.” and followed by calculations of possible success and repercussions.

    Never the ‘need’ to follow through with the urge; but a simple conceptual design before rapid dismissal.

  • Michael

    We simulate to understand; how long it would take me to get to the door, how long it would take someone in the distance to reach me, how to unscrew a bottle cap, how to lift an awkward object. The strength of imagination, or how visceral/consciously apparent it is, is determined by the extent to which it elaborates the system. In the hpp phenomena, we simulate to understand the danger, it is an automatic process, but, coupled with the fact that these incidents often take place when you have time to think about them, and their visceral nature/their extremity/your fear, the simulation jumps out at us more than in the everyday cases in which we do the same thing. Then we naturally question why we’re doing it, and misinterpret it as a desire. Our capacity for simulation also explains why we find magic so plausible

  • Jc

    Pure ocd. Read up on it.

  • L'Appel du Vide.

    I like the fact that you acknowledged that the name “HPP” was misleading.
    The “proper” English name, as you call it, sucks ass.
    Call it Appel du Vide. Or Call of the Void.
    That’s what it is. It has absolutely no correlation with highs.
    These acronyms are out of place, make no sense and the next step will possibly be to create medications for this absolutely natural and in a way, beautiful, impulse.
    Thanks, nice article.

  • Jared

    I along with everyone else am relieved to hear that it’s so common that the French have named it. That’s also a super bad assistance name for it, too. I used to definitely think it was suicidal ideation tI’ll I confirmed with my SO and our best friends that they’ve experienced it too.

    The simulation idea is fascinating and I never thought about in so many words before. It makes sense kind of like how developing children break and mess things up. The parents get mad at the behavior but they’re just learning. I guess those simulations never stop. Maybe they just switch gears once you have all the fundamentals down and are aware of the concept of danger, the simulations become more about preservation?

  • Colin

    I can’t even look at images of high places, or visualise being on them, without feeling all the anxiety symptoms associated with this.

  • Sofie

    omg, this! THIS!!! 6 years in therapy, and some of the reasons are perfectly described in this article, but none of the professionals I’ve talked to about it with have had a clue. It was diagnosed as ptsd and suicidal tendencies even though I am dead scared of dying 😛 6 years on medications that have done nothing but made me sick, given me heart flutter and increased anxiety. *sigh*

  • Thomas Welch

    Were you at the top of the tower thinking “imagine if Eiffel”?

  • Monica

    I realized this was called L’appel du vide a few months ago, and that was such an amazing moment…that I wasn’t alone, that ‘this’ existed!
    But, this article is such a perfect example of the feeling and thought behind it…i will keep this to explain the sensation to others. THANK YOU!!

  • Javad

    Fascinating, really. That we the complicated human beings feel like jumping off a cliff into our beloved fates but our brains orders us to step back. This means We are greatly different from our brains. We go through feelings and instincts command us and we just do it, without having any knowledge of the reason behind it. Really wonderfull our brains are but it’s exactly the core to all our mental problems, perhaps we should send a bullet right through it?

  • I am so happy and relieved to read that others have these same feelings and thoughts. I always thought I was not well to think this way. Like CONTEMPLATION above, I too have run scenarios through my head of causing such things to others as well as myself… of course with never a thought of follow through.

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