Impulse to leap into the void may be life-affirming

Ever since I was a small child, I have felt the irresistible, incredibly irrational urge to just do stupid, and quite frankly dangerous, things.

When I was 4 years old, my family went to visit my dad's best friend. David was a big burly man with a red beard, a giant black dog and a house in the bush. He was practically a hermit, with his cottage built around the trees on the side of a steep hill. My parents went off to set up for lunch, and left me out on the balcony, where I stood up on my tiptoes to peer over the handrail. I knew that I shouldn't, but I couldn't help reaching down, peeling off my socks, and chucking them over the edge into the trees below.

Later, when I was 10, my family moved down to Dunedin. On sunny days, my parents would bundle us all into the van and drive us down to Sandfly Bay, where, armed with boogie boards and sunscreen, we would fling ourselves down the giant sand dunes and into the ocean.

Sometimes we would stroll along the edge of the cliff, along the Chasm and Lovers' Leap.

Standing here, overlooking the hideously high drop to the churning ocean below, I felt an almost-irresistible urge to hurl myself off the edge.

I was only 10 years old, and I was not suicidal by any means. But there it was, that little voice in my head: ''I could just jump right now.''

I mentally recoiled, and actually shuddered.

It was at this point that I began to wonder whether this ineffable feeling was one I only felt, or if it was one familiar to other people. What if my little brothers and sisters felt this way too? I pulled them closer to me, and rushed back down to the safety of the sand dunes. I'm somewhat relieved to hear that I am not the only one to feel this way at times.

According to Edgar Allen Poe, this feeling is ''the imp of the perverse''. Freud termed it ''The Death Drive'', while others describe it as the ''High Place Phenomenon.'' Most commonly it's called the ''Call of the Void'' or ''L'appel du vide'', if you want to sound fancy and French.

It's terrifying to acknowledge this odd phenomenon. One minute, you're admiring the view from a high church tower, the next, you're wondering what it would be like to jump.

Other cases of this feeling are less sinister: perhaps you're a guest at a wedding, and you can't help but wonder what it'd be like to topple that magnificent, pristine wedding cake.

Sometimes I'll be wandering through Oxford, and a pigeon will waddle in front of me. I never act on the feeling, but sometimes I feel that irrational urge to just boot the bird into the middle of nowhere.

Even though the majority of us will never act on these impulsive thoughts, they can undoubtedly be unsettling to experience.

I've noticed that when I'm feeling particularly exhausted or angry, my ability to resist these urges lessens.

Thankfully, I've never felt a truly dangerous case of the call of the void in such a destructive state of mind, but I have unfortunately hurled a bowl of stew across the room because I simply felt like it, and I have bellowed in the middle of a quiet street, just because I could.

I hope these thoughts begin to lessen, or at least manifest themselves in less macabre ways. Suddenly bursting into song in the middle of a silent exam hall or touching an electric fence are hardly comparable to jumping in front of a train or licking a knife.

As much as I've read about it, I can find no definitive conclusion or explanation for it. In 2012, Jennifer Hames led a study at the department of psychology at Florida State University on what she termed ''the high place phenomenon''.

Hames sampled a survey of 431 undergraduate students, and asked if they had experienced these intrusive thoughts and urges. Simultaneously, she measured their mood behaviours, anxiety levels, symptoms of depression, and their levels of ideation. Hames found that a third of those surveyed reported that they had experienced the phenomenon. Participants with higher anxiety were more likely to experience ''the call of the void''.

However, people with higher anxiety were more likely to have higher ideation. Those with higher ideation were more likely to report the phenomenon.

A little over 50% of the students surveyed who said they felt ''L'appel du vide'' never had suicidal tendencies.

What can we make of this? Sartre would probably argue that the call of the void is a moment of Existentialist truth about one's freedom to choose to live or to die. There's a certain thrill in contemplating terrifying outcomes before one's mind rationalises the situation.

Perhaps this feeling reinforces our desire to live, because for one brief, hideously attractive moment, we think of jumping, of falling, of doing something so beyond the pale, that we are jolted back into the present, and are reminded of our safety and autonomy.

But who really knows? In the meantime, I'll try not to scream in meetings, kick pigeons, or teeter on the edge of skyscrapers.

-Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.


Apposite, clever and anarchic. Stay life affirming, in life.

Thanatos is a fink.