Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

The call of the void

-6 Post author: Elo 28 August 2016 01:17PM

Original post:  http://bearlamp.com.au/the-call-of-the-void

L'appel du vide - The call of the void.

When you are standing on the balcony of a tall building, looking down at the ground and on some track your brain says "what would it feel like to jump".  When you are holding a kitchen knife thinking, "I wonder if this is sharp enough to cut myself with".  When you are waiting for a train and your brain asks, "what would it be like to step in front of that train?".  Maybe it's happened with rope around your neck, or power tools, or what if I take all the pills in the bottle.  Or touch these wires together, or crash the plane, crash the car, just veer off.  Lean over the cliff...  Try to anger the snake, stick my fingers in the moving fan...  Or the acid.  Or the fire.

There's a strange phenomenon where our brains seem to do this, "I wonder what the consequences of this dangerous thing are".  And we don't know why it happens.  There has only been one paper (sorry it's behind a paywall) on the concept.  Where all they really did is identify it.  I quite like the paper for quoting both (“You know that feeling you get when you're standing in a high place… sudden urge to jump?… I don't have it” (Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 2011). And (a drive to return to an inanimate state of existence; Freud, 1922).

Taking a look at their method; they surveyed 431 undergraduates for their experiences of what they coined HPP (High Place Phenomenon).  They found that 30% of their constituents have experienced HPP, and tried to measure if it was related to anxiety or suicide.  They also proposed a theory. 

...we propose that at its core, the experience of the high place phenomenon stems from the misinterpretation of a safety or survival signal. (e.g., “back up, you might fall”)

I want to believe it, but today there are Literally no other papers on the topic.  And no evidence either way.  So all I can say is - We don't really know.  s'weird.  Dunno.


This week I met someone who uncomfortably described their experience of toying with L'appel du vide.  I explained to them how this is a common and confusing phenomenon, and to their relief said, "it's not like I want to jump!".   Around 5 years ago (before I knew it's name) an old friend recounting the experience of living and wondering what it was like to step in front of moving busses (with discomfort), any time she was near a bus.  I have coaxed a friend out of the middle of a road (they weren't drunk and weren't on drugs at the time).  And dragged friends out of the ocean.  I have it with knives, in a way that borderlines OCD behaviour.  The desire to look at and examine the sharp edges.

What I do know is this.  It's normal.  Very normal.  Even if it's not 30% of the population, it could easily be 10 or 20%.  Everyone has a right to know that it happens, and it's normal and you're not broken if you experience it.  Just as common a shared human experience as common dreams like your teeth falling out, or of flying, running away from groups of people, or being underwater.  Or the experience of rehearsing what you want to say before making a phone call.  Or walking into a room for a reason and forgetting what it was.

Next time you are struck with the L'appel du vide, don't get uncomfortable.  Accept that it's a neat thing that brains do, and it's harmless.  Experience it.  And together with me - wonder why.  Wonder what evolutionary benefit has given so many of us the L'appel du vide.  

And be careful.


Meta: this took one hour to write.

Comments (12)

Comment author: ike 28 August 2016 03:48:06PM 2 points [-]

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1016636214258 but I don't see the raw data on a quick look.

From the study (free from the link above)

Impulsive Experiences Scale. The Impulsive Experiences Scale is a 10- item questionnaire designed for this study that asks subjects to rate the urges they have had to do inappropriate and harmful behaviors on a six item likert scale. Subjects were asked to rate the presence and strength of five different impulses/urges; the urge to shout something inappropriate while surrounded by other people, the urge to jump off of a high place, the urge to steal or take something, the urge to jump in front of a train, subway, or car, and the urge to strike or slap someone.

Comment author: WhySpace 28 August 2016 09:38:50PM 1 point [-]

I occasionally experience this, but I've never assigned it strong positive or negative affect/valence. I'm high in openness to experience, so I just kinda thought it was an academically interesting phenomenon, and haven't thought much of it, much less lost any sleep over it. It's just interesting in the same way that this is interesting.

If anyone takes it too seriously, I recommend this approach. Just clicking the xkcd link will help your brain more strongly associate the humorous and fascinating bits about it with the call of the void. I recommend trying to set up a Trigger Action Plan, so that you think of the xkcd any time you experience the call of the void.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 28 August 2016 02:53:14PM 1 point [-]

My impression is that the feeling really is something like "what would happen if," in order so that you can answer that with "something bad" and get out of the situation where it might happen. But because you are afraid of it happening, there is a slight tendency to misinterpret the feeling as something that might make it happen, i.e. as a desire for it, just as e.g. when you are scared in a dark room, and you hear a noise, you interpret that noise as meaning something scary.

This only makes sense once you realize that the subjective feeling of a desire does not in itself tell you what it is a desire for, but you learn that from experience. So for example there is nothing about the subjective feeling of hunger that tells you it is about food or eating, but you simply notice that when you are hungry, you are likely to eat. From this you conclude that hunger must be a desire to eat. Given this kind of separation between a desire and its object, there is nothing to prevent the kind of misinterpretation above: I stand at the edge of a cliff and feel a peculiar feeling. It would be really bad to fall, so it would be dreadful if that feeling were a desire to jump which might make me jump!

What's worse is that it is theoretically possible for someone to say to himself, "I want to jump. So I'll do it, to get what I want." Of course this is not very likely to happen.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 29 August 2016 09:57:34PM 0 points [-]

I have experienced this. But not like an urge but rather as a feeling of surprise how little it takes to die (or at least horrible accident) and how little it actually happens. An appreciation how amazing reliable we humans are.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 30 August 2016 03:36:50AM 0 points [-]

It is always surprising to me that people get into car accidents as rarely as they do. I would have expected people to get into fatal accidents every six months of commuting or so.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 30 August 2016 08:00:45PM 0 points [-]

fatal accidents every doesn't make sense in combination, doesn't it? :-))

But yes, that kind of feeling.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 28 August 2016 04:30:39PM 0 points [-]

Poll! Poll!

How often did you have any of the experiences in the first paragraph. E.g.

When you are holding a kitchen knife thinking, "I wonder if this is sharp enough to cut myself with".

Submitting...