This Phenomenon Could Be The Source Of Your Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts don't make you a bad person. Instead, they're what is known as a 'call from the void.”

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 27, 2024

Imagine standing on a bridge and peering down at the water flowing by, when you're momentarily overcome by the thought of what would happen if you were to jump off—or even an unwelcome urge to do so. Moments like these often catch us off guard, leaving us shocked at the audacity of our minds.

Such thoughts can be incredibly unsettling, especially when their origin is elusive. Random, intrusive thoughts surrounding impulsive, dangerous actions can be deeply disturbing—leaving you questioning your life, your happiness and even your sanity. However, psychological research offers insight into the nature of these thoughts, revealing that they are not nearly as abnormal as they might feel.

What Causes These Intrusive Thoughts?

At the heart of this phenomenon lies "l'appel du vide"—translating to "the call of the void"—as the French aptly put it. This is a unique concept that captures the inexplicable urges and thoughts individuals experience when confronted with potentially dangerous situations. The term encapsulates the paradoxical attraction to danger, despite a simultaneous fear of it. This concept, also known as the "high place phenomenon," has intrigued both psychologists and philosophers alike.

For a long while, this anxiety was thought only to be associated with suicidal ideation. However, modern research reveals that this is not always the case. This study from the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests, instead, that these thoughts stem from a misinterpretation of a safety or survival signal, rather than an inherent death wish.

In simple terms, the authors explain that when someone finds themselves in a dangerous position, their brain's fear response mechanism kicks into gear. This mechanism swiftly sends a signal akin to, "Danger! Retreat to safety!" This rapid response, often operating faster than conscious thought, prompts the individual to instinctively step back from their precarious position, averting potential harm without fully comprehending their actions.

Strangely, it's only moments later that the slower, more deliberate part of the brain may misinterpret this safety signal as a darker desire, leading to thoughts such as, "Am I actually contemplating jumping?" This misinterpretation arises from the brain's attempt to make sense of the instinctual urge to protect oneself in perilous situations.

What Does A "Call From The Void" Sound Like?

While these feelings may be jarring, the above mentioned study, as well as others, report that this phenomenon is quite common—even among people with no history of depression or suicidal thoughts. Many people experience intrusive thoughts when in potentially dangerous places, and they can manifest in a variety of situations:

  1. Standing in a high place. You might experience these thoughts if you come across a cliff edge, or stand near the edge of a high-rise building. As you peer over the edge, you might experience a sudden, inexplicable urge to jump—even though you have no desire or intention to do so. This urge might be accompanied by a mix of fear and fascination with the idea of what would happen if you were to jump.
  2. Driving on a bridge or cliff-side road. While driving along a bridge or road along a cliff-side, you might experience a momentary urge to veer off the road or crash through the guardrail. This feeling can be particularly unsettling, as it occurs in a situation where split-second decisions can have life-altering consequences.
  3. Standing on a platform as a train approaches. While waiting for a train on a platform, you might experience a sudden thought or urge to jump onto the tracks as the train approaches, despite having no actual motive or desire to harm yourself.

Are Intrusive Thoughts A Dangerous Sign?

If you've ever experienced these intrusive thoughts and become helplessly preoccupied by them, take comfort in knowing that you're not alone.

Rumination regarding these thoughts doesn't indicate a moral failing or an inherent danger within yourself. Rather, researchers suggest that it arises from a natural curiosity about the limits of human behavior. It's not a desire to harm oneself or others that drives these out-of-character thoughts, but rather a fascination with the possibility of denying our own instincts for survival and self-preservation.

At its core, l'appel du vide is a testament to the curious nature of human psychology and the enigma of free will. Those grappling with intrusive thoughts usually understand all too well the consequences of their possible actions; they're acutely aware of the potential of jumping off a cliff or stepping in front of a train. Yet, it's the cognitive dissonance surrounding our own capacity to act on these thoughts that gives rise to that dizzying sense of freedom.

We're not seeking to test fate or court danger for its own sake. Rather, we're wrestling with existential questions about the boundaries of our agency. Can we defy the primal instincts that urge us to preserve our own lives? Are we truly free to choose our actions, even when those actions defy logic or reason?

As humans, we have free will, and it is our nature to be curious and mystified by these capacities of our minds. We possess the freedom to explore our thoughts and emotions, even when they lead us to uncomfortable places. While intrusive thoughts can be unsettling, they do not define who we are. If you find yourself struggling with the nature, frequency or origin of your intrusive thoughts, remember that support is always available from friends or professionals who are willing to listen and offer assistance.

Are you often preoccupied with the mysteriously macabre? Take the Morbid Curiosity Scale to understand this urge better.

A similar version of this article can also be found on, here.

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