l’appel du vide – the attraction to and fear of high places. And falling from them.

Here we go with the first real post!

A few weeks ago, I went to Porto with my best friend to meet up with a Brazilian guy we hadn’t seen since our adventure in Recife last summer. I will cover this short trip in another blogpost but a conversation I had on the last night got me thinking.

I was standing on the Ponte Dom Luiz at night, looking out over the stars, the lights all around and the river far below us. Our dancing, Uruguayan guide (who didn’t know his way around btw) told us he couldn’t look up at the stars. He said that it would make him dizzy and there was a chance he would fall, a feeling he described as ‘vertigo’. The word sounded vaguely familiar and after looking it up, it means a sense of dizziness and the feeling that your surroundings are whirling around you. The guy linked it to an attraction to and at the same time a fear of heights, in particular falling from high places. It’s the feeling you get when standing at the edge of a cliff or on top of a tall building, suddenly getting the urge to just leap over. You’d think the internet can give an answer to everything but somehow it couldn’t really reveal a link between vertigo and this feeling. It did lead me to “l’appel du vide”, a French term that can be translated to “the call of the void”. The sensation the guy was talking about, could be described as the simultaneous desire to move towards and away from the void.


Picture by Arno G.

It’s the feeling you get when standing at the edge of a cliff or on top of a tall building, suddenly getting the urge to just leap over.

L’appel du vide is described as the urge to jump from high places but I think the previous definition gives it some more depth. This sensation of l’appel du vide feels quite familiar to me. Somehow I’ve always been attracted to heights, pushing the limits and sitting on the edge. At the same time, it gets me really nervous. It almost feels like there are two sides pulling you opposite ways. Imagine these thoughts running through my mind in Porto, after two days of barely sleeping and being in ecstasy from the amazing view I was given.

Most part of my life I have been stuck in this battle between attraction and fear, between wanting to do something or be someone (else) but being afraid of doing so.

My mind immediately went places and I started applying this feeling of fear and attraction on different aspects of life. For me, most part of my life I have been stuck in this battle between attraction and fear, between wanting to do something or be someone (else) but being afraid of doing so. Before this takes me too far, I need to back up and have a closer look at the phenomenon of “l’appel du vide”.


Picture by Arno G.

The research into this concept is quite limited but they ‘recently’ did come up with an English name (the high-place phenomenon) and a possible explanation. Hames et al (2012) found that the sudden urge to jump from a high place isn’t something that’s only experienced by people with suicidal tendencies or ideations (even though it is more occurring in this group). They found a correlation between the high place phenomenon and anxiety sensitivity. People who score high on this trait will be more sensitive to bodily sensations that resemble anxiety or fear and they will wrongly attribute this to a harmful, negative experience. The researchers suspect that the different perceptual systems in the brain that are activated when standing in a high place, lead to a misinterpretation of the bodily sensations. Humans have automatic safety systems when being confronted with a dangerous situation. Without consciously thinking about it, our body makes us move back when standing on an edge. Through a slower perceptual system we realize then that there was no real danger, we weren’t about to fall to our death. But of course, we are rational creatures and we try to find a logical explanation for the safety reaction we had. What better explanation can there be than the idea that maybe, just maybe you really wanted to jump and that’s why your body made you move away from the edge? It’s funny how our minds make us think there’s something wrong with us, while our body just reacted in a totally normal way! Maybe we’re not that crazy after all…

What better explanation can there be than the idea that maybe, just maybe you really wanted to jump and that’s why your body made you move away from the edge?

As you might have noticed, my mind is kind of chaotic and so is this blogpost. Believe me, it was even worse before I trimmed it down. I started applying the coincident phenomenon of fear and attraction to love and traveling, but those topics I’ll keep for a different post. For now, I hope you guys could wrap your heads around what I was trying to say. Don’t worry, even I am still trying to figure it out!

Do let me know if you recognize this feeling or if you have topics you’d like me to cover!

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3 Comments

  1. hiparquia

    So cooool! Congratulations for the blog!
    These are really intriguing situations :3
    Another interesting thing that can add some food for thoughts about it: there are many studies people make in laboratory with rats, to test fear and anxiety related to exploration of new places. They built this “elevated plus maze”, which is like a high platform with 4 arms – two with walls and two without walls – where the rats are put on to explore. Usually, the more fearful and anxious the rats are, the less they get closer to the edge and explore way less.
    Maybe standing on the edge of a cliff and being on high places require less anxiety but to feel l’appel du vide you still will need that anxious feeling inside. And each one will have a different threshold for that 🙂

    The cognitive explanations for that are infinite!

    This is a nice video of a elevated plus maze test with two different rats, one who is more anxious and the other who is less:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXJI_yJcnD4

    Also, if you want to read an example of a research that is based on that:
    http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0100-879X1999000100015

  2. Your articles are for when it abtsluoely, positively, needs to be understood overnight.

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