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The Science Behind The 'Call Of The Void'26:21
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Untitled. By u/creativeadam

[NOTE: This episode contains some mentions of suicide. If you're ever feeling suicidal or are grappling with distressing thoughts, you can get help. Call 800-273-TALK — it's anonymous, free and 24/7. Remember you are not alone. There's nothing wrong with asking for help. We want you to be here.]

This is going to sound a little weird to some of you, but have you ever been up somewhere really high, looked down and had the urge... to jump?

I take a ferry a lot and sometimes I look down at the churning water and wonder about what it would feel like to jump in. And then I shudder, back away and go do something else.

This feeling has a name — the call of the void, or l'appel du vide in French, where the term was first coined. Some people feel it, some don't. Most people ignore it, but not everyone does.

A lot of people don't really talk about it. But you know Reddit is always the place to go to when you're wondering, "Am I the only one?"

Turns out there is some science behind this feeling.

via GIPHY

April Smith, an associate professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio, has studied this. She even co-authored a study about it, "An urge to jump affirms the urge to live, an empirical examination of the high place phenomenon."

("High place phenomenon" is what scientists call it).

Her research found a few things. One, that about 50 percent of people have experienced aspects of the call of the void. And two, that it's the result of some kind of miscommunication in your brain.

"It could be the case that when you're up somewhere high, your brain is basically sending an alarm signal — you know, be careful. And that could actually lead you to take a step back, or notice your surroundings," she says. "Then that more deliberative process kind of kicks in and you start to think, why did I just take a step back? I'm totally fine. There's no reason for me to be afraid. Oh, I must have wanted to jump."

Like a trick of the mind — a post hoc rationalization of a behavior. And it's not anything to worry about, she says. Some thoughts are just chatter, or static. They don't mean you're going to do something, or not do something.

Smith also says this is what happens with non-suicidal people. With those having suicidal thoughts, it may be different.

And, she points out, people think suicide is an impulsive act, but research says it's not.

All of these thoughts are part of a large genre called "intrusive thoughts." A lot of people have them — like when you're driving down the road and think about hitting a pedestrian, or you're bathing your child and think about drowning them.

Or you know, you just want to scream sometimes in the middle of a meeting. It happens to all of us. (Uh not me though, definitely have not ever thought about screaming in the middle of a meeting, if my boss is reading this).

Even though most of us never act on these impulsive thoughts, they can be really upsetting to experience. If they start to become a problem, it's a good idea to talk to a doctor about it. (Intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of OCD).

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Thanks to Redditor u/creativeadam for this week's artwork. You can follow him on Instagram at @hiadamroberts


We're on Twitter at @endless_thread and on Reddit as /u/endless_thread. Subscribe to the podcast with Apple PodcastsStitcherRadioPublic or RSS.

Meghan B. Kelly Twitter Digital Producer
Meghan is a digital producer for WBUR.

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