Amit Chattopadhyay / Wikipedia
Have you ever stood in a high place and felt the urge to jump? Judith Dancoff did one beautiful, clear day on Deception Pass Bridge, a narrow two-lane causeway that ribbons between two islands north of Seattle. If she followed her compulsion to leap, death at the bottom of the steep ocean gorge 180 feet below would be almost certain.
A novelist known for literary flights of fancy, she did not feel suicidal—and never had. Though normally fearful of heights, she strangely was not afraid then, though Deception Pass Bridge is ranked among the scariest in the world. Its slender concrete span cantilevers over jagged cliff-tops and reportedly wobbles in high winds, with only a minimalist 1935 railing separating you from distant roiling waters.
None of that registered with Dancoff, who was also unaware of the bridge’s history of attracting jumping. Instead, she saw herself as if in a dream, climbing onto the pedestrian railing then diving off. She was so unnerved that she sat down cross-legged on the pavement to stop herself. “It was terrifying because of the possibility of doing it,” she later recalled. “I felt a bit foolish. I thought, ‘where did that come from?’ ”
The seemingly irrational, but common urge to leap—half of respondents felt it in one survey—can be so disturbing that ruminators from Jean-Paul Sartre (in Being and Nothingness) to anonymous contributors in lengthy Reddit sub-threads have agonized about it. While the French philosopher saw a moment of Existentialist truth about the human freedom to choose to live or die, ramp_tram called it “F***king stupid” when he had to plaster himself to the far wall of a 14th-floor hotel atrium away from the balcony railing because “I was deathly afraid of somehow jumping off by accident.”
The French explain it as L’Appel du Vide, or call of the void. Are they just French, or can the void really beckon you to kill yourself? New science on balance, fear, and cognition shows that the voice of the abyss is both real and powerful. Heights, it turns out, are not exactly what they seem.
Traditional theories attribute extreme phobic reactions—whether fixated on heights, snakes, or the sight of blood—to emotional problems, negative thinking, anxious temperament, and past traumas. “With fears and phobias, psychologists like to say that you are afraid of this because you don’t have coping mechanisms or you are afraid because of anxiety,” says Carlos Coelho, known for his groundbreaking psychology research into acrophobia, or the fear of heights. “But where is this anxiety coming from?”
When it comes to heights, there is more going on than the projection of past anxieties, as once thought. The nature of extreme heights mixes together sense perceptions, body kinesthetics, and our mental states. “We take perception as the grounded truth: Seeing is believing,” said Jeanine Stefanucci, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah who studies how emotions, age, and physical condition change how we relate to space, especially vertical space.
Her research belies the truism that seeing is believing. Subjects in her lab see poop on a table (actually a messy blob of chocolate) as closer than it really is, and the width of a plank they’ve been told to walk over as smaller than it is. Other researchers have found that subjects have underestimated the time to encounter a snake or spider, but not a butterfly or rabbit.1
Fear may also explain why humans do not see up-down the same as sideways. To understand how that works, let’s stand on a high balcony, near the railing. Look at a disk placed on the ground below, then back up until the railing is as far away from you as the spot is below you. You’ve just matched a vertical and horizontal distance.
Acrophobia can produce a bizarrely counterintuitive effect: the impulse to yield to the source of panic and willingly jump.
But you’re probably wrong. Study participants have been observed to overestimate verticals by anywhere from one-third bigger to double their actual size.2 Yet people usually have no problem correctly estimating horizontals. The vertical over-estimation bias makes high places scarier than they are for some people: Stefanucci and others have found that people most afraid of heights overestimated verticals the most, heightening their fear and creating a feedback loop.3
“A lot of people who hear about our work want to know why it would be good for someone to overestimate heights. I argue that it’s adaptive,” says Stefanucci. “Taking a step back is a good thing.”…