There is this strange phenomenon: You stand on a cliff or a huge building and suddenly you feel the urge to jump. The French call it “L’Appel du Vide”. And it’s more common than you may think. But why do we hear this “Call of the Void”?
Do you know that feeling? The French were the first to give it a name: “The Call of the Void” or, francais: “L’Appel du Vide”. The void calls for you! Spooky!
I know L’Appel du Vide. Though I have a fear of heights, I’m fascinated by them, too. If I stand at a cliff or on the roof of a high building, I am mesmerized. It’s taking me a lot of effort to go to the edge and to simply stand there.
But when I do, sometimes a voice in me tells me:
“You could jump. You want to jump, don’t you?”
And this voice is right. I want to jump. But, why?
When I was young my self diagnosis was:
“Mr. Wunderlich, you’re somehow suicidal. There is a part of you that wants to die. But you suppress it. And in dangerous situations this part of you tries to take control and urges you to jump!”
I was sure I had serious psychological problems. I was suicidal without even knowing it! So I kept these experiences by myself. I told nobody that this voice was trying to kill me.
If you’re self-threatening and your hypothetically stoned friend calls an ambulance – hypothetically – you may wake up in a psychiatric warden.
I know, that’s a messed up idea. My brain thinks too much sometimes. Especially when I was younger. And, sometimes, stoned myself.
Later in life I shared this experience of “L’Appel du Vide” with others. It was less risky, because I had encountered the call of the void again and again and – so far – didn’t jump. Maybe this experience wasn’t suicidal at all.
Maybe it was simply the deep longing to … fly! Jumping from the cliff and gliding through the air. Feeling the wind in my feathers – well, let’s not overstretch the analogy…
But could it be just … that? I did know the feeling of flying. From my dreams. When I was young I had this nightmare of flying. I would run very fast and I would start to make bigger and bigger steps. And the steps would turn into leaps and the leaps would carry me higher and higher. And with every leap I got more anxious to loose the ground forever. Until I did.
Later in life those dreams changed. In my more lucid dreams I had the possibility to change in a flying mode just by choosing to. Meanwhile I’m an experienced dream flyer and this special nightmare has lost all its power over me. Well, so far.
So, maybe this call of the void was just mixing up reality with my dreams? Something in me was so proud that I achieved the knowledge how to fly in my dreams that it thought I could give it a try in real life, too.
Well, as you can hear right now, I never did.
In fact “L’Appel du Vide” is a quite common phenomenon. Jennifer Hames from the Department of Psychology over at Florida State University was the first to write a paper about it in 2012. Or the first one I know of.
She surveyed over 400 students, asking them if they encountered this feeling before. And she checked for episodes of depression or anxiety and the grade of ideation.
It turned out, that about 120 of the undergrads had experienced the call of the void. 30% confessed thinking at least once in life: “It’s so high. Let’s jump!”
Maybe some of the other 70% had experienced similar things, but were still to afraid to admit it. So, let’s say: A third of the population could know about this wish to jump.
Isn’t it strange that we don’t talk about it? That we do not really have an explanation for something so common? That there are only a handful of studies about it?
We thourougly document eye movement when users visit any given website and make psychological profiles of people who spend more than $ 100 for sneakers. We do so while many of us seem to have this strange wish? Isn’t that telling?
There are some suggestions regarding this psychological experience. Jennifer Hames has one herself. Her hypothesis is: The ones called by the void are not suicidal, they are the opposite!
She speculates that what happens is an accident between the conscious and the unconscious mind.
Imagine you are walking at the edge of a high building. And be reassured: There’s a railing. You are secure!
Nonetheless you suddenly realize the height and you jump back a little. Instinctively, without thinking.
The brain, always reasoning, comes up with some soothing thoughts:
“Don’t be afraid, you idiot! There’s a railing! You will not fall! You walked all this distance and now you panic? No! Just keep going.”
But why were you scared? And you were scared – you made this little safety dance!
The only possible solution your brain comes up with: “You wanted to jump, idiot!”
Hm. The brain in my episodes turns out to be a really unfriendly entity. I wish I had another brain to think about my brain thinking … Can you follow me?
Well, back to Jennifer Hames study and her theory. I cannot judge the study, because I’m no scientist. She sees a small correlation between anxiety and the call of the void. Students with higher ideation seem to be more prone to this feelings. And there is no evidence for a correlation between depression and „L’Appel du Vide“.
But these are just correlations, not causations and the study itself seems to be not unambiguous.
I personally can’t say that my experiences felt like that in any way.
The truth is: It was a positive feeling. The thought was somehow even liberating.
Adam Anderson, a neuroscientist at Cornell University has another proposal. He thinks that this phenomenon starts with a conflict of two fears in ourselves.
There is the fear of heights and the fear of death in us at the same time.
We stand there, at the cliff and suddenly the fear of this height overwhelms us. We are losing control and something in us tells us:
“Do something or I will use this red panic alert button! And you know what happens if you panic? No, you don’t remember? Well, that’s part of the problem!”
In milliseconds our subconsciousness looks on its shoulders. On one shoulder is the fear of heights and it already reaches for the panic button. On the other shoulder there is the fear of imminent death, but it’s not in alarm mode at all. It smokes a cigarette and thinks: “Yeah, if you jump from something that’s so high, you gonna die. But not immediately. You’ll have some minutes before you collide with the bitter truth of gravity.”
The fear of death is propably miscalculating the flight time, but our subconsiousness is impressed. So it produces the wish to jump. It thinks: If we jump we can regain control over the fear of heights. We’re gonna trick it! Who’s in control now, you miserable little fear!
That sounds more reasonable to me, to be honest. Because I am afraid of heights and I know “L’Appel du Vide” at the same time. But if Jennifer Hames study may have flaws, there is no study of Adam Anderson at all. It’s just a hypothesis without any proof. Fascinating anyhow.
There are other theories of course. I remember reading an article written by a psycho analyst who used the ‘call of the void’ as an example for the death drive in us.
The death drive was part of Sigmund Freuds book “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”. Almost exactly hundred years ago.
Mr. Freud thought that we have an energy for survival, for procreation and for sex, so he named that drive “Eros”. Now, in this book, he claimed that there is another drive in us. The drive to self destruction, the wish to sabotage our own life – the drive to die.
Actually he talked about death drives in the plural form. But his successors soon baptised this “Thanatos”. As a counter part to Eros.
It would be lying, if I told you that everyone was excited about his thoughts. In fact the death drive was and is hotly debated. Freud himself seemed to have changed his mind in later years, too.
There is simpy no evidence that every human being comes with a death wish as part of his psychological scaffolding. It seems more plausible that smokers, junkies or reckless drivers are not driven to death. They simply prefer the immediate kick of their addictions to the sober deliberations regarding their possible demise in an uncertain future.
Even the slogan “Live fast, die young” – which was not invented by the hippies, but twenty years earlier by forgotten author Willard Motley – even the slogan “Live fast, die young” is not an open invitation to a mass suicide.
I guess not many people killed themselves because they were afraid to leave a wrinkled corpse when they get too old.
No, I don’t believe in a death drive either.
Well. So far we got no really good explanation for the call of the void. At least one of three listeners knows what I talk about, but no one figured out the meaning of it?
When the psychologists and neuro scientists can’t help us, then let us look to their predecessort. Let’s give philosophy a try!
Jumping or not jumping, that is the question. An existential question, if I ever heard one. So we’ll ask the existentialists. We ask the pope of existentialism. That would be Paul Sartre. He had something to say about “L’Appel du Vide.”
“It’s so unsettling because of the way it creates an unnerving, shaky sensation of not being able to trust one’s own instincts. It’s a moment of Existentialist truth. Where we fully realise the human freedom to choose to live or die.”
That’s more in my league. I can relate to that. Not that I’m too fond of existentialism. Well, I like Humphrey Bogart movies, fair enough – but I really don’t believe that our free will is as important as existentialists envisioned.
And I don’t need brain scans to know that my mind is constantly producing thoughts and emotions, faster than I can reflect.
But Sartre points in the right direction. I think it does NOT help to free the call of the void completely from the sinister smell of suicide. I believe it is basically the shock that some force in us pondered self destruction, even for the fraction of a second.
You can have the same experience at a train station when a fast train moves in. Or holding a gun in your hands. Or a box of sleeping pills.
It happens. And I’m sure it happens to everyone.
Our subconsciousness is alway aware of the situation we are in right now. And it prepares our next action long before we even begin to think of it. It makes one hundred different plans and only delivers a handful of these possibilities to our mind.
So much for free will, by the way.
But sometimes it stumbles on the possibility that we could jump when we are standing at the edge of a cliff. Or that we could shoot ourselves if we hold a gun.
And this suggestion is so shocking to a living being that it scares the hell out of us! This strong emotional reaction flushes the idea to the top of our mind.
This shock produces the call of the void. L’Appel du vide.
And, let’s be honest here: Everyone of us had suicidal thoughts at least once in their live. You don’t grow up without thinking about a world without you. That’s just a place where our mind can wander and it wanders everywhere it can wander to.
That’s not a death drive at all. That’s just try and error.
You can be full of the joys of life from your apex to your toes, you can hum with happiness all day – there is a part of you that’s tired of it all. That’s okay. That’s just a part of life. Life is exhausting. It uses you up. It is suffering, too.
I believe you should not think that you’re suicidal if you hear the void calling. Don’t be afraid of the darker thoughts and emotions. We all have these. You are allowed to have these.
„L’Appel du Vide“ does not mean you are suicidal. It means you have NOT lost your will to live. The shock that is the source of this experience means that you do NOT want to jump. Or shoot. Or swallow the pills.
The one who stands at the top of a building to end his life is not having this experience. He or she decided to jump, NOT because he or she heard the call of the void.
Probably suicide victims are too desperate to hear anything at all.
The next time you’ll experience this strange psychological phenomenon, step back and take a deep breath. Then think of Paul Sartre. Because he is right about something: You are able to end our life. It’s just a fact: You can commit suicide. And everyone thought about that at least once in their life.
But: You are alive. You have the potential to kill yourself, but you didn’t do it!
You are still here! You made it! You achieved your life!
You went through dark hours, but you survived. And you can repeat this.
Because of the potential to kill yourself, you yourself decided to survive these emotions. You yourself decided to live!
That means: You are alive because of you!