Looking for a jump off

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You've read 1 of 2 free monthly articles. Learn More. H ave 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 feet below would be almost certain. A novelist known for literary flights of fancy, she did not feel suicidal—and never had.

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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 railing separating you from distant roiling waters. 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. 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-thre have agonized about it.

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. T raditional 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.

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. The hint of a headache at your temples, an itch at the back of your throat, a fever so slight you barely feel it. Her research belies the truism that seeing is believing. Other researchers have found that subjects have underestimated the time to encounter a snake or spider, but not a butterfly or rabbit. Fear may also explain why humans do not see up-down the same as sideways.

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. Acrophobia can produce a bizarrely counterintuitive effect: the impulse to yield to the source of panic and willingly jump. Study participants have been observed to overestimate verticals by anywhere from one-third bigger to double their actual size. 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.

Steep drop-offs in high places can also create symptoms related to motion sickness because of conflicts between our visual system and our vestibular system, Coelho hypothesizes. The conflict creates nausea. It can help to close your eyes. Something similar can happen on a high precipice. Perhaps a mountain pass in the Pyrenees, like where Sartre used to vacation, possibly inspiring his famed urge-to-leap passage in Being and Nothingnessaccording to Sartre biographer Gary Cox.

The view seems to stretch forever, the distant expanses flattening into infinity. With so little earth up close beneath your feet, there are few visual cues to accompany forward motion, and your visual and vestibular systems clash. Those who are most likely to feel the urge to leap also tend to worry more about other life issues. People who rely more on sight to navigate struggle harder to maintain their balance while moving, making them even more afraid at Looking for a jump off, where the loss of depth of field confounds our visual abilities. Others may suffer from poor postural control, which requires muscular-skeletal strength and agility.

Coelho measures postural control in his laboratory with the Romberg test, echoed in the drunk driving check requiring you to walk a straight line. To try the tougher lab version, stand barefoot Looking for a jump off to toe, left foot directly in front of the right, cross your hands over your chest, and close your eyes. Now hold that pose for two minutes. Sounds easy, right?

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Many people only make it a few seconds. The few aces who made it to two minutes were the least afraid of heights. The difficulties presented by these effects—faulty visual perspective, poor body control, weak vestibular aling, and overestimation—contribute to making acrophobia, or fear of heights, one of the most common phobias in the world, affecting 1 in 20 people. But unlike snake, spider, or blood phobias, acrophobia can produce a bizarrely counterintuitive effect: the impulse to yield to the source of panic and willingly jump.

A s complex as our fear of heights is, the urge to jump is even more difficult to explain. Our fear circuitry, which includes the amygdala and other fast-acting subconscious brain regions, may send an alarm to the prefrontal cortex for interpretation. Your conscious processing, which operates at a slower speed than the fear circuitry, recognizes the alarm al, but may not know why it was sent. While your conscious brain would not need to scratch too hard to figure out why your hand recoils from a hot stove, you might be confused why your body automatically pulls back from the edge of a precipice.

Because the void is different. These sensations can include sweating, heart palpitations, dizziness, and shaky knees, all of which are common responses to high places. Those who are most likely to feel the urge to leap also tend to worry more about other life issues, including the fear of going crazy. Whether their urge to leap reflected an actual death wish or a misinterpreted safety al was unclear.

An alternative theory for the impulse to jump is offered by Adam Anderson, a Cornell University cognitive neuroscientist who uses brain imaging to map behavior and emotion. He suggests that the High Place Phenomenon stems from the human tendency to gamble in the face of great risk. In the case of high places, the roll of the dice is to jump.

Then we are confronted with the fear of death problem. In other words, our brain holds the idea of death at an emotional distance. What these theories share in common is their observation that the will to live—and the specter of death—swirl and mix at the edge of an abyss. It is difficult, or maybe impossible, to know which, if any, of these theories are relevant to those who choose to actually jump.

He ed a reported plus others who have died leaping from the bridge since it was built in Why did he do it? Stupidity, alcohol, a secret death wish, or an existentialist choice? Instead, she says, it beckoned up. We have been warned.

Not everyone listens, as seen in the surge in extreme airborne sports such as BASE jumping, which involves leaping from high places with a parachute or in a wing suit fitted with a late-opening chute. The death rate is steep, around 50 to deaths perjumps, dwarfing the United States suicide rate of 13 deaths perpeople, especially since many people jump more than once.

It reminds us that we should not necessarily feel anxious about feeling anxious in high places, Coelho says. Lack of fear kills a lot of people. Jessica Seigel is an award-winning journalist, New York University adjunct journalism professor, and former Chicago Tribune national correspondent. Vagnoni, E. Threat modulates perception of looming visual stimuli.

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Current Biology 22RR Willey, C. Visual field dependence as a al strategy. Teachman, B. A new mode of fear expression: Perceptual bias in height fear. Emotion 8 Coelho, C. Deconstructing acrophobia: Physiological and psychological precursors to developing a fear of heights. Depression and Anxiety 27 Hames, J. An urge to jump affirms the urge to live: An empirical examination of the high place phenomenon. Journal of Affective Disorders Quirin, M.

Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 7 Nautilus uses cookies to manage your digital subscription and show you your reading progress. It's just not the same without them. Thank you! Temptation: Deception Pass Bridge rises feet above the ocean.

Looking for a jump off

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Why You Feel the Urge to Jump