March 13, 2012 at 12:10 PM ET
There you are, driving across a bridge spanning a deep ravine, when suddenly you sense an urge to drive off it. Yet you’ve no desire to kill yourself.
Believe or not, this feeling now has a name. In a research study published last month in the Journal of Affective Disorders, a team from Florida State University’s psychology department explored this freaky feeling and dubbed it high-place phenomenon.
“We were talking one day in a lab meeting and some of us had experienced it,” recalled psychology doctoral student Jennifer Hames. But when the lab searched the psychology literature, they could find no mention of it. “So we thought, What a great study!”
It could, they thought, shine light on one of Freud’s ideas, that some people have a “death wish,” and that some suicides are purely impulsive, absent any sign of depression or even sadness.
Hames and her colleagues surveyed 431 college students, asking them about urges to jump from high places and thoughts of suicide. They also assessed the students’ levels of depression, and their sensitivity to anxiety. That doesn’t mean how anxious they are; it means how sensitive they are to the physical effects -- faster heart beat and shortness of breath -- that accompanies anxiety. Those physical sensations can themselves be interpreted as dangerous.
About a third of the sample said they’d felt the urge to jump at least once. People who had thought of suicide were more likely to say yes, but over 50 percent of those who said they’d never considered suicide experienced the phenomenon, too.
When the results were correlated, the team arrived at the following, admittedly somewhat speculative, scenario: Imagine a person with high anxiety sensitivity. She leans over a ledge of the Grand Canyon. In super fast reaction to her physical sensation of anxiety, her survival instinct forces her away from the edge. Yet when she looks at the ledge, she sees it’s sturdy. There was never any danger. Her brain tries to process an answer to the question “Why did I back up if it was safe?” A logical answer is that she must have been tempted to jump.
In other words, Hames explained, people misinterpret the instinctual safety signal, and conclude they must have felt an urge to leap. Hence the study’s title: “An Urge to Jump Affirms to Urge to Live.”
Pauline Wallin, a psychologist in private practice in Camp Hill, Pa., thinks Hames might be onto something, but also suggests that we think about leaping from a high place for the same reason 13-year-girls like going to Halloween haunted houses -- for the thrill, and as practice “for not buckling under to fear.”
Hames is now planning further research to find out if "high place phenomenon" holds up. One starting strategy might be, she said, to take a bunch of students to the top of a high parking garage, have them lean over the edge, and measure their physical signs of anxiety.
Presumably extra credit will given.
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