This article contains several mentions of suicide. If you have been grappling with distressing thoughts, don’t despair! There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, and here is a list of suicide helplines. We want to see you around.
If you’ve ever been to the top of a tall building or a cliff and looked down, the odds are you felt terrified — but you may have also felt something else. A weird, inexplicable draw to… jump. This happens more often than you think, it even has a spooky name: the call of the void (or l’appel du vide in French). There’s no actual reason for feeling like you want to jump and you don’t technically want to do it, but the call is somehow inexplicably there. So why does this happen?
Rest assured: this is common and it happens to plenty of people. It doesn’t imply there’s something dark or suicidal deep inside of you. Instead, scientists believe this phenomenon is an intrusive thought that seems to often appear in people with no link to suicide ideation, and may in fact be linked to a strong desire to live. However, the science is not entirely clear on the call of the void.
Intrusive thoughts and the call of the void?
If you’ve ever had a random, disturbing, and fleeting thought or urge, there’s a good chance it was an intrusive thought — an unwelcome, involuntary thought that seems to barge into your mind, often screaming the opposite of what you actually want. Involuntary thoughts can become an obsession or can be very distressing (in which case they are often linked to mental conditions), but they can also be entirely unrelated to anything you’ve previously thought.
It doesn’t even have to be linked with high buildings. Common examples of the call of the void include standing on a train or subway platform and thinking about jumping, thinking about jerking the steering wheel into a cliff, or jumping into deep water from a boat or a bridge. Of course, most people don’t talk about this; it’s not something you can just bring up in a discussion, and the idea of saying “hey I had a random thought of jumping off a bridge today” is terrifying in itself.
So we don’t talk about the call of the void all that much, but maybe we should.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that this is actually fairly common. Although it’s not scientific evidence (as we’ll see in a moment, scientific evidence on this phenomenon is actually very scarce), the internet abounds with stories of people experiencing the call of the void from time to time. Just take Reddit, for instance — where dozens and dozens of posts have been published about the call of the void, sometimes with thousands of comments on them. Here are some comments from Reddit users from one such thread:
“This makes me feel a lot better for having these feelings; it’s a scary thought to have for seemingly no reason.”
“I have them every once in a while. My mind starts playing scenarios of ‘what would happen if I __‘. There is no way of stopping them, only accepting that they’re a part of your life.”
“I’m glad there’s a name for it. I moved into an apartment with a balcony on the 25th floor about 6 months ago. For the first few weeks, I’d often get the urge to jump off the railing and “fly over the city.” My rational brain knows that the flight would be short and end messily, but the urge would still pop up every so often.”
Again, this is not scientific information, but it seems that every time you browse this type of thread, people are always surprised that this phenomenon is so common and not connected to suicide ideation (repeated ideas or ruminations about the possibility of ending one’s life). So then, why do these thoughts appear?
The science of the call of the void
Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer as to why this happens. April Smith, an associate professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio, is the author of the only study on the call of the void we could find. While there are a few studies on intrusive thoughts, this particular phenomenon seems far less studied. From the very title of Smith’s study, it’s apparent that the call of the void is not the same as suicide ideation: “An urge to jump affirms the urge to live, an empirical examination of the high place phenomenon.”
“The experience of a sudden urge to jump when in a high place has been speculated to be associated with suicidal ideation; however, scant data has informed this speculation. We termed this experience the high place phenomenon (HPP) and proposed that it stems from a misinterpreted safety signal (i.e., survival instinct),” the researchers write in a study.
The study was carried out on 431 undergraduate college students and only focused on one call of the void experience — the high place phenomenon, or HPP (the jumping from a high place thought). The students were asked to complete questionnaires regarding feeling this type of intrusive thought, suicidal ideation, anxiety sensitivity, depressive symptoms, and history of mood episodes.
The study found that over half of those who reported never having suicidal thoughts experienced some version of HPP. People more inclined towards anxiety symptoms (but less inclined towards suicidal thoughts) seemed more likely to experience HPP, but the results weren’t clear-cut. What was clear-cut (at least based on the findings of this study) is that HPP seems to not be connected to suicide at all — but rather, the researchers speculatively link it with a will to live.
“The HPP is commonly experienced among suicide ideators and non-ideators alike. Thus, individuals who report experiencing the phenomenon are not necessarily suicidal; rather, the experience of HPP may reflect their sensitivity to internal cues and actually affirm their will to live,” the study concludes.
The study had significant limitations. It was a relatively small sample size, participants were undergrads (and may therefore not be representative of the entire population), and the link to anxiety or suicidal thoughts was only superficially explored. But it is perhaps the best scientific information on the call of the void, and it seems to make sense. In fact, there is a simple mechanism that fits in with this interpretation.
Think about it this way. Not jumping from cliffs or in front of a train is deeply embedded into you. It’s a threat to your survival so it’s something your body wants to avoid at all costs. So it presumably tries to suppress the very idea that this could happen. But if you’ve ever tried to suppress a thought, you know that it can easily backfire.
Basically, your attempt to avoid thinking about something can lead you to do the exact opposite and think about it. All it takes is a single thought that can cascade into a chain reaction leading to intrusive thoughts like the call of the void. It could also be your brain trying to send a signal to be careful and *not* do that thing.
“Instead of the high place phenomenon defending the view that everyone has a “death wish” or that “suicide is impulsive,” 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”),” the above-mentioned study notes.
However, much of this happens below the radar of the conscious mind, so this is all pretty much speculation at this point. There are no clear studies documenting this phenomenon, and since it’s so difficult to design studies to dive below the conscious level, it’s unlikely that this phenomenon will be fully understood in the near future.
So do these thoughts mean anything?
Many people hear the call of the void from time to time, and if it happens to you, well, you’re in good company. It’s one of those bizarre and not-yet–fully-understood things our brain does sometimes.
Based on what we know so far, the call of the void doesn’t seem to be a cause for concern, unless it happens very often and becomes obsessive. However, the difference between this type of thought and suicide ideation may not be all that clear, so it can be useful to carry out a mental check or consult a therapist if these thoughts start recurring. It may also be useful to keep an eye out for any anxiety symptoms. As Smith’s study concludes:
“Although at first blush, the experience – and even the description – of the high place phenomenon calls to mind suicidal desires, clearly the experience is commonly felt by many non-suicidal individuals.”
So instead of focusing on the call of the void, or as the French call it, l’appel du vide, perhaps we could focus on a different French saying: Mange bien, ris souvent, aime beaucoup / Eat well, laugh often, love abundantly.