Call of the Void

Can I confess something? I tell you this because, as an artist, I think you’ll understand. Sometimes when I’m driving on the road at night, I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.

-Christopher Walken as Duane Hall
Traditionally, we might attribute the statement above from the film Annie Hall to pathology or suicidal ideation.
However, have you ever stood at the precipice of a cliff and suddenly felt the urge to jump? The sensation passes and you step back to safety. Have you ever held a knife and wondered how it would feel to slice your arm open? You quickly come to your senses and sheath the pointy object. Have you lingered above deep water and pondered what would happen if you jumped in? Perhaps a fleeting notion to react to oncoming traffic like Duane has flitted through your head. But you never plunge into the depths or steer into other vehicles. Your normal thinking returns.
If you’re willing to admit to any of the preceding scenarios, you can take a sigh of relief. Not only are you in the majority of human beings, but it’s also highly likely there’s nothing clinically wrong with you. If you have encountered a sensation such as these, you have experienced the call of the void.
And it does not indicate suicidal ideation! In fact, it just might mean you’re more in tune with staying alive than someone who hasn’t heard the void.
Image by Nathan Shipps

From the French term l’appel du vide, the call of the void is a psychological phenomenon in which intrusive thoughts related to events that would kill or harm a person momentarily seize the consciousness. The experience usually subsides quickly.

Another name is High Place Phenomenon, after one of the most common situations in which the sensation arises. In addition to the examples listed in our opening, other common scenarios include a sudden desire to stick one’s hand into a garbage disposal, sticking a metal object into an electrical outlet, or jumping in front of a subway car or train.

The happening is not well studied, perhaps because of previous assumptions regarding the link to suicidal ideation. Most humans are extraordinarily hesitant to admit such feelings since we place a high stigma on mental illness. Thankfully, the attitudes of society at large are slowly changing. With this paradigm shift comes new scientific thinking in regards to mental illness.

The first two major studies on the call of the void occurred in the past five years. Both concluded the experience of the call of the void is not linked to suicidal inclinations. Somewhat paradoxically, the behavioral scientists behind the studies believe the experience points to the exact opposite of suicidal notions.

Reach out. I will listen if you need it.

The studies discovered that just over 50% of the population admits to hearing the call of the void and never having suicidal ideations. Researchers hypothesized the phenomenon might be a “misinterpreted safety signal” in the brain. As in, part of the brain might encourage a person to move away from danger by showing the self what could happen. Instead of instantly recognizing the warning, the consciousness somehow decrypts the signal as a desire to undertake the negative action.

Jennifer Hames, assistant clinical professor at Notre Dame University and a researcher from the first study on the phenomenon in 2016, believes the call of the void could be the subconscious showing the self gratefulness for being alive. The results of the study indicated those who experience the void might be more sensitive to deciphering internal cues than those who do not. Further, the more anxiety one experiences, the more likely one is to feel the void. These data point to a life-affirming phenomenon, not one of a destructive origin.

The lead researcher in the second study, Tobias Teismann, told LiveScience, “In our outpatient clinic, people repeatedly presented themselves with the question of whether they were suicidal. On the one hand, they were very attached to life, but on the other, they often felt the impulse to jump down somewhere or steer their car into oncoming traffic. I know the phenomenon myself, having felt it in my early 20s, so I knew studying it would be fascinating and clinically relevant. It seems to be something known to many people regardless of suicidality and anxiety. As such, it is normal, and not a sign of psychopathology.”

So, if you’ve experienced the call of the void, fret not. Your desire to live is likely deep-rooted. Could the High Place Phenomenon be an evolutionary development to aid in avoiding danger? Are our brains trying to show us what we would become should we not heed hazards? Perhaps no better teacher exists to avoid the void than to see the void. An extremely intriguing concept!

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