Photo: headoverheels.org

Photo: headoverheels.org

A few months ago I went hiking with some of my friends in an absolutely stunning mountain setting. We climbed a country road for half an hour or so on foot, then reached a chalet right in the middle of a pine tree clearing and had a few beers with the keeper there, who was gracious enough to show us around. He told us about this incredible place only a few minutes walks away where we would find a 500foot waterfall the likes of which we’ve only dreamed about. Naturally, we went for it. It took us a hell of a lot more (but I thank him for lying, in retrospect), but here we were, right at the head of the waterfall, staring down as champagne-like water crashed into the rocks. Everybody around me was talking out loud how cool this whole place is. I could only think about jumping off. Not in a “hey, I’m sick of this world, I wanna die!” way. It was more like I was drawn to do it, be one with the water and simply flow. Luckily, my survival instincts didn’t fade me, so in the next instant I got the self-destructive thought flashing through my head, I backed off. But was this a matter of self-destruction of something else?

It took us a hell of a lot more (but I thank him for lying, in retrospect), but here we were, right at the head of the waterfall, staring down as champagne-like water crashed into the rocks. Everybody around me was talking out loud about how cool this whole place is. I could only think about jumping off. Not in a “hey, I’m sick of this world, I wanna die!” way. It was more like I was drawn to do it, be one with the water and simply flow. Luckily, my survival instincts didn’t fade me, so in the instant after I got the self-destructive thought flashing through my head, I backed off. But was this a matter of self-destruction of something else?

The experience made me reflect. I realized afterward that this wasn’t the first time I had this sensation. I occasionally had the feeling when I was near cliffs, rooftops, bridges and so on. I swear I’m not suicidal, though. So what does that make me? The perfect lab rat for a group of psychologists at Florida State University, it seems.

“We were talking one day in a lab meeting and some of us had experienced it,” recalled psychology doctoral student Jennifer Hames. But when the lab searched the psychology literature, they could find no mention of it. “So we thought, What a great study!”

Death wish or life wish?

In 1920, famous psychologist Sigmund Freud published Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where he writes about the “opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts”, namely the so-called “death drive”. Practically, Freud says, some people wish for death and that some suicides are purely impulsive, absent any sign of depression or even sadness.The assumption of the existence of an instinct of death or destruction has been met with resistance even in analytic circles, and to this day Freud’s theory has remained highly controversial. But the “jump off the bridge” sensation poses an interesting connection, so the Florida State researchers delved deeper.

The team surveyed 431 college students, asking them about urges to jump from high places and thoughts of suicide. Beforehand, the participants’ levels of depression, suicidal thoughts and their sensitivity to anxiety were measured. A third of the participants confessed they’d felt the urge to jump at least once. Those who had had suicidal thoughts were more likely to say “yes”, but even so half the participants who had never considered suicide also said they experienced the feeling. What’s going on? Is Freud right?

Not necessarily. The leading hypothesis is that those who experience this sort of sensation are actually misinterpreting their instincts. More precisely, the researchers believe the sensation arises when people become over anxious when faced with a potential danger (falling off a bridge), but become confused when they consciously find there’s no reason to be anxious about anything (you check the ledge, see that it’s sturdy, so what’s the problem?).

This conflict leads the person to believe that he actually wanted to jump and this is what sparked his survival instincts. If anything, the researchers conclude, the results suggest that people who experience this sort of feeling are actually expressing a will to live, not the other way around. This is definitely good news for me, but the conclusions are a bit speculative, to say the least. Other researchers who were not involved in the study believe the sensation could be caused by a number of things. The simplest explanation is that people are in it for the thrills.

Next, the researchers plan on placing participants (students of course) in a rooftop setting, measure their anxiety sensitivity and response, and further study the phenomenon. The present findings were reported in Journal of Affective Disorders.

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