If you’ve ever sat atop a steep cliff, or on the observation deck of a skyscraper, and looked straight down, you probably remember thinking about how easy it would be to jump. If you’re reading this now, we can safely assume you didn’t — but where does this irrational, obviously suicidal urge come from? Psychologists call it the “high place phenomenon,” and they say it may even be a sign of a healthy mind.
Psychology researchers have found that the urge to jump off a bridge or veer off a cliff is actually surprisingly common. A 2012 study found that it occurs both to people who report having suicidal thoughts and to people who have never shown suicidal tendencies whatsoever. Roughly 50 percent of the non-suicidal study respondents reported having an inexplicable urge to jump from a dangerously high place.
The study’s authors think that the high place phenomenon is a matter of your brain playing a trick on you. Although you weren’t actually going to jump off of the cliff, simply seeing the edge triggers a subconscious fear response that the conscious mind attempts to rationalize. Conscious thought works more slowly than emotional response and the rest of the human brain’s auto-pilot circuitry, which is why you pull your hand away from a hot stove before even thinking about it. In this case, there is no stove, so the conscious mind looks for a rationalization of its fear and says to itself, “Oh no, I must have wanted to jump!”
Another theory suggests that the phenomenon comes from the human tendency to gamble when faced with great risk. It may be that a fear of heights and a fear of death aren’t completely connected in our minds, so while looking down off of a precipice sets off alarm bells, your mind may hold onto an irrational belief that if you could only get to the ground somehow, you’d be safe. So you might as well take the risk and jump.
Scientists and philosophers are just beginning to scratch the surface of the way experiences like the high place phenomenon work. Both fear response and gambit theories rely on the idea that human beings are largely unaware of their own thoughts, motives, and judgments. In 2017, Peter Carruthers published a compelling argument for the idea that we’re all fundamentally unaware of our own thoughts and that the idea that we know them is a convenient illusion — our brains playing another trick on us. This theory explains how the high place phenomenon (and many other irrational behaviors) can take place in our minds, even though everyone likes to think they act in a more-or-less rational way.