By Srestha Mazumder
Have you ever stood at the edge of a cliff, or any high point for that matter, looked down and wanted to jump?
Many people experience this urge to jump off high places just “to see what would happen”. When explaining this urge to people, many misinterpret it and thus label it as a suicidal tendency. But what if the person who wanted to jump is not suicidal at all? How would one explain this irrational temptation to jump off a cliff just to see what would happen?
According to Sigmund Freud, we all have an unconscious desire to die, or a death instinct known as Thanatos. And when we are faced with situations that allow us to carry it through, we are tempted. Under Freud’s theory, these death instincts are “repressed” in our unconscious and come to surface in situations where we have the opportunity to carry them out. However, many psychologists and others alike are hesitant in believing in this innate “death desire” we all seem to possess. Moreover, they believe that this urge is due to some other impeding factor and not our self-destructive behaviour, as Freud explained it to be.
Many have experienced this sensation before, however, not many people have brought it to light. A psychology doctoral student named Jennifer Hames was the first to bring it to light in a lab meeting with her colleagues. Intrigued by this sensation, and also the fact that many others in the room had felt something similar, they decided to take a look into the phenomena. However, much to their dismay, no psychology literature mentioned anything of the sort. As a result, a research study was initiated.
In order to unravel this mystery, the Psychology department of Florida State University did some research. In 2012, in their Journal of Affective Disorders, they published their findings and conclusions. They studied 431 college students and noted their urges to jump from high places and their view on suicide. Their levels of depression and sensitivity to anxiety were also measured. This wasn’t measuring the amount of depression and anxiety they had, but rather how they susceptible they were to the physical effects that are attached to anxiety and anxious behaviour.
With the results coming back showing that approximately one-third of the students had experienced this before, Florida State University were able to come to a conclusion. However, it should be noted that due to the cross-sectional nature of this study, the conclusions are limited in strength, but they are still noteworthy. There is no significant correlation between individuals who have depression and/or anxiety and having felt this phenomenon. However, those students who had considered suicide previously were more likely to have felt this urge. In spite of this, over 50 per cent of students who have never considered suicide have also been subject to this urge at least once.
Contrary to popular belief, the urge to jump is not an innate death wish, nor is it associated with suicidal ideation. This experience is quite “normal” and has since been termed the High Place Phenomenon (HPP). Basically, when we stare down a high point, our brain emits a safety signal, which we misinterpret and take it as an indication to jump. It is not a death wish, but rather it is our desire to survive that kicks in. However, it was also noted that although this is a typically normal behaviour, those who have some level of anxiety are more prone to this sensation and misinterpretation.
The phenomenon is fairy new to the world of psychology, and therefore there are very limited literatures in relation to this. In 2012, Jennifer Hames did mention that she would be planning further research into this phenomena. However, no papers have yet been published to further this research. The conclusion that we can come to, however, is that this urge is common and is felt by both suicide ideators and non, alike. Hence, those individuals who have noted this experience before are not suicidal, as Freud would point out, but are instead just affirming their will to live.