High Place Phenomenon: The Urge to Jump Is Not A Wish To Die
The breeze drew me to the windows, and seconds later, my mind threw me out of it. Or so I thought—I visualized the jump and subsequent plunge. My heart skipped a beat and my body recoiled immediately. Was I thinking of suicide? Not necessarily. Jennifer Hames and her colleagues (2012) suggest that it may instead be a survival instinct, one which produce what they call the ‘high place phenomenon’ (or HPP).
The ‘high place phenomenon’ is the “experience of a sudden urge to jump when in a high place,” such as on a bridge or in a building—like in my case. The psychologists conducted research on 431 students at the Florida State University, and found that this phenomenon does not indicate suicidal ideation, i.e. does not prove a death wish. If you wanted to die, chances are you would feel this urge to jump off high places. But this does not mean the reverse: that if you feel this urge to jump, you indeed want to die.
It is thus surely comforting to put a scientific label on such an unsettling experience.
Beyond the High Place Phenomenon
Yet the ‘high place phenomenon’ is just a stand-in concept to protect against flawed understandings of humanity. Philosophies and scientific theories in the past often assume that the individual is a conscious, rational being (reductions of Descartes’ dictum ”I think, therefore I am”). It is in response to this tradition that concepts now proliferate about our irrationality. We are predictably irrational. Our thoughts can be random. Impulses can emerge at any time, but they do not necessarily mean that we truly want to act on them. We should learn to distance from our thoughts.
I am reminded of The Stranger by Albert Camus, a first-person narrative in which the protagonist Meursault kills an Arab man—with no conscious intent. After the murder, other people constructed a narrative of Meursault’s inhumanity, mostly because he did not weep at his mother’s funeral. The tale brings attention to the disconnects which often appear in everyday life, between our minds and our bodies. We are not always conscious beings, and we cannot treat our subconscious like we do our conscious.
And for me, that understanding is better than relying on justifications from the scientific community. Because what if I have the urge to jump onto a busy road? It’s on low ground, so how can it be called ‘high place phenomenon’? Am I then suicidal, even if I clearly wish to stay alive and make the most of my place in this world?
So, if you have the urge to jump off a high place—or a low place—don’t panic. Take it as a reminder that you do in fact want to live. Then back off and live your life even better.
Hames, J. L., Ribeiro, J. D., Smith, A. R., & Joiner, T. E. (2012). An urge to jump affirms the urge to live: An empirical examination of the high place phenomenon. Journal of affective disorders, 136(3), 1114-1120. [Link]