Friday, March 20, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #102: Why Do We Feel the Urge to Jump Off High Places?

A couple of days ago I said to the boyfriend, “Do you ever find yourself standing in a high place, and you feel the urge to jump off?”

He replied, “Ahhhh, stahhhp,” because he totally had. So I decided to look into it, and by “look into it,” of course I meant Google it.

Sigmund Freud explained urges like this one by theorizing that people have something called a “death drive” created by the “opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts.”

The theory grew out of Freud’s efforts to understand the compulsion he saw in traumatized patients to revisit the traumatic experiences, such as in the case of World War I veterans struggling with what was most likely post-traumatic stress disorder. He postulated that the death drive must be what causes some people to continue re-experiencing traumatic events, whether through flashbacks, dreams, obsessive thoughts, or recreating the events over and over in their lives, even though the very nature of these traumatic events would go against the pleasure principle, his other theory that the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain is a driving psychological force. According to Freud, some people might commit suicide by jumping off a high place even though they’re not suicidal – because they looked over that cliff and just happened to succumb to the death drive.

That theory remains controversial, for some reason.

But in 2012, some researchers from Florida State University decided to investigate what they’ve dubbed the “high place phenomenon,” after some discussion in a lab meeting revealed that an unspecified number of them had felt the urge to fling themselves to their deaths. According to the NBC News column The Body Odd, the researchers found “no mention of it” in the psychological literature, so they decided to look into it, and when I say “look into it,” I mean perform legitimate, non-Google-related research.

Psychology doctoral student Jennifer Hames and team spoke to 431 college students and asked them whether they’d ever felt the urge to jump from a high place and also, if they’d ever thought of suicide. The researchers evaluated the students for symptoms of depression. They also assessed the students’ sensitivity to the symptoms of anxiety – people who feel the physical effects of anxiety more strongly are also more likely to perceive danger in anxiety-producing situations, like peering off the top of a cliff.

As seen here.
Image by Complexsimplellc from Wikipedia.

Thirty percent of the students said they’d experienced the urge to throw themselves to their deaths at least once. Perhaps unsurprisingly, students who had experienced thoughts of suicide were somewhat more likely to admit to having wanted to jump off a bridge. However, more than half of those who said they’d never felt suicidal had also experienced the urge to dive headfirst into the sweet embrace of death. So, if you’ve ever climbed to the top of a tall, medieval tower only to ponder what it would be like to hurl yourself onto the beautiful courtyard below, don’t worry – you’re perfectly normal.

The researchers hypothesize that when you feel the urge to jump from a stunning viewpoint, you’re really experiencing cognitive dissonance. You’re probably sensitive to the physiological symptoms of anxiety – a rapid heart rate, mild dizziness, and shortness of breath – and your brain will decide that you must be in danger. But at the same time, you know that you can’t fall – you’re not close enough to the edge, the place where you’re standing is sturdy, or there’s a six-foot-high barrier to discourage suicides, like there is around the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Pictured: The third most common type of suicide in France, apparently.
Image by Benh Lieu Song from Wikipedia

So, there you are, getting all anxious, even though you’re not in danger. Your brain puts this all together and decides that you must want to jump. The urge to throw yourself onto the sharp, craggy shoreline so very, very far below isn’t a self-destructive urge – it’s a misinterpretation of the survival instinct. If you’ve worried that your urge to go splat on the street like a gruesome tomato means that you secretly want to die, fear not – in fact, it’s the opposite.