The call of the void (The urge to jump from a precipice)

When looking down over a steep drop, I often get an almost irresistible urge to jump . It’s apparently common enough that the french even have a term for it - L’appel du vide, or the call of the void. What is the explanation for this phenomenon?

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You knew someone had to do it.

The explanation I’ve heard, and favor, is that our intelligence is built around modeling our situation and contemplating alternatives. We think about whether to ask Dolores to marry us, or whether to have the apple pie for dessert, or whether to use aftershave… At any given instant, we are looking down a lot of possible “alternate futures.”

When you’re standing at the edge of a high place, one of those possible futures is “I step forward.” However, since we know that this would bring highly unfavorable consequences, our internal censor – the part that keeps us from asking Dolores for oral sex, having an entire apple pie for dessert, or drinking the aftershave – yells at us, “No way! That’s terrible!”

We aren’t really tempted to jump from the high place. We’re just taking it into consideration, the way we do all our alternatives. Our minds are built to be flexible. We keep “jumping” in mind, just in case the Mir Space Laboratory comes crashing down upon us or a Gryphon suddenly pounces.

I have a call to stick my hands into machines, like engines and chain saws. Never thought about jumping off a cliff.


If I found this urge recurring, I would make sure I was always wearing a hang glider in such situations.

A story about a woman whose husband worked at a Pickle Factory—

One day, her husband comes home and says, “Dear, for years at work I have had the powerful urge to stick my dick in the pickle slicer. Every day, when I walk past the pickle slicer, I get the compulsion to just stick it in. Well, today, I gave in and shoved my dick in the pickle slicer right there on the work floor.”

The wife gasps, “Oh my God! What happened?”

“She and I both got fired.”


This sounds like the imp of the perverse again.

I have that too. Also, when holding something small and fragile and alive, like a bird or a mouse or something, I have the urge to squish it and am terrified that I will.

You need to work on your example-picking skills.
I don’t think it’s as straightforward as contemplation of the possible. There are all sorts of possible actions that appear before us, even those with grave consequences, that do not have a similar call of the void. For example, when mashing stakes into the ground I never get the urge to crunch my thumb (YMMV). I presume this non-feeling differs from when sitchensis faces an industrial shredder or Zsophia juggles kittens. Perhaps it’s the contemplation of the possible with some added element of desire.

(BTW, anyone else here think the thread was going to be about having to pee when visiting a library or bookstore?).

I’d say the capability to perform ‘What if…?’ analysis is an absolute necessity for intelligence. IMO, sometimes it’s consideration of possible futures, other times, it’s like the brain is a committee comprising a spectrum of attitudes, ideas and opinions - and what’s going on internally is analogous to debate.

This is from a somewhat parallel topic on ‘Weird Urges’:

Why doesn’t “‘What if…?’ analysis” as an attractant apply to alternate threats? For example take an angry dog. I usually remember considering all the scenarios that end with parts of me in its mouth to avoid them. However I don’t feel a strange urge to pet its snarling tongue. Nor an urge to roll around in a fire, or grab a downed power line.

I think its at a deeper and simpler level, depth perception. When you’re looking straight down a chasm, you’re looking at something that’s visually right by your feet, yet parallaxed much farther away. That paradox has to play hell on some part of the brain.

As antidote, I don’t have much, if any depth perception, and my reaction to heights always been every neuron screaming in unison “(Carefully!) back the fuck away you fucking idiot before you get us all killed you stupid, clumsy asshole. What the hell you even doing on this thing? I mean Jesus Titty Fucking Moses. Look how high it is, get the fuck down”.

Weird brain is weird. I’ve gone bungee jumping and sky diving several times (though never at the same time). In all cases, even after a few jumps, the former was always completely terrifying whereas the latter was surreally relaxing. Not that there wasn’t a heap of anxiety associated with the first jump, but none of the terror associated with the height. I’ve always chalked it up to the visceral perception of distance. My monkeybrain understands what a few hundred feet drop is and could do to me. Above ten thousand feet, it has no evolutionary frame of reference.

Richard Preston wrote this article in the New Yorker about Lesch–Nyhan syndrome, a medical condition that causes self-injuring, including biting off fingers, lips and tongues.

Most people with it do not life very long.

Grin! If you knew Dolores like I know Dolores…

Good point… When working with a hammer, I often have that weird “imp of the perverse” feeling about smashing my partner’s thumb, but not my own.

Whenever I see a sign that says “Void Where Prohibited,” I have the strangest urge to comply with those instructions…

Is it possible to get back to the OP?

I have similar urges. For whatever reason, it’s especially strong at malls with clear glass railings overlooking the first floor. I often spend a second or two vividly imagining myself clambering over the railing and jumping down.

I also have the urge to put my hands in dangerous places like fans and machinery, but not as often, probably because I don’t encounter them as often.

I’m really curious if this is a thing. I always kind of thought I was weird.

Well, if you’re not good with heights, jumping is the quickest way out of the situation.

I forget the name of the movie, but Jeff Bridges played a character who had this. After he realized he would never follow the urge to jump, he felt deep shame and had to start burying people alive to feel like a man again.