Famous buildings and structures tend to have one thing in common—their height. From the Golden Gate Bridge to the Willis Tower to the Statue of Liberty, the country is filled with elevated sightseeing opportunities. Millions and millions of people from across the globe come to stand atop these famous pieces of architecture and gaze out at the world below them. Staring into the icy cold waters of the Pacific, looking through the floor at the busy Chicago streets below, admiring the spot where so many immigrants entered into the United States—it’s all pretty surreal.
While visiting Seattle, I had the opportunity to make my way up to the top of the Space Needle. And though it wasn’t on the top of my list of things to do—to be fair, my list consisted of coffee, beer, and seafood—I went for it anyway.
For a city so cold and gloomy, it’s amazing how it convinces people to travel farther up into the atmosphere where it’s colder and gloomier. And to get there, you must ride in an elevator that rivals the one at the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Where are you headed? Up, of course.
But, thankfully, this elevator does come to a stop and lets you off into a warm room where you can buy alcoholic beverages and admire the view without stepping foot onto the balcony. However, I didn’t pay an exorbitant amount of money and ride in a crowded, gravity-defying box to get all the way to the top and not recreate the scene from Sleepless in Seattle in my mind with my imaginary boyfriend playing Tom Hanks’ role.
After chugging some courage in the form of a hoppy amber ale, I push open the door to the outside, and it just takes my breath away. No, not the view; I can’t even see past the tall man in front of me just yet. It’s the frigid air that leaves me immediately wishing I owned a coat meant for sub-65-degree weather but realizing I live in California so I don’t have to own a coat. But at least it’s not raining.
I tuck my hands inside my coat that may as well be made of nylon and take a few steps toward the railing. The first thing I notice is how the railing doesn’t just end around my midsection like most buildings. It goes all the way up, caging me in as I get closer to the edge.
The sun is peeking out from a cloud, casting a ray of light on the sea below. I survey the glistening water, the revolving ferris wheel, the buildings old and new.
Again, not the view—though it is pretty spectacular. I’m only able to appreciate the city from above for a moment before I lose my breath, begin to shiver, and feel slightly paralyzed. I look at the space between the rails, wondering how easily I could fit through. My heart is beating faster, faster. The familiar tightness in my chest is making its way up the side of my throat.
I take a step back, nearly knocking over a toddler who pays no mind as she excitedly makes her way to the spot I had just vacated. Her fearlessness and wonder inspire me to give it another go. I take as deep of a breath as my lungs will allow and take a place next to the little girl. I want to enjoy the view through her eyes, but I can’t. I have to step back again. This time, I turn around fully and make my way back inside to the warmth and beer.
I’ve never been scared of heights, so I can’t blame it on that. My favorite rides at theme parks are always the towers that drop you from a million feet in the air or the roller coasters with the highest hills. This feeling—one I’ve experienced on many occasions—isn’t so much a fear, but an urge. An urge to jump, though I know I never would.
I’m enclosed on a safe balcony, standing atop a bridge, looking over the edge of a mountain I’ve just hiked when I experience the urge. My body freezes up as my brain has to talk itself out of hurling me to my death. I don’t want to jump. I don’t want to die. And I know I would never actually carry out this strange urge. But it doesn’t make it any less scary. It’s like at any second, I feel like I’m going to lose all control over my body and just take a leap for no explainable reason.
Thankfully, I’ve found comfort in knowing that this urge does not mean I’m suicidal or scared of heights. After finding out that my mom and a close friend also experience similar urges sometimes, I turned to the internet, where I discovered a study conducted by the Florida State psychology department, titled “An urge to jump affirms the urge to live: an empirical examination of the high place phenomenon.”
An urge to jump affirms the urge to live.
Not only does this strange urge now have a name “high place phenomenon,” but it actually has an explanation that makes a lot more sense than anything I could have come up with. The high place phenomenon has to do with the idea of “cognitive dissonance,” or what happens when your brain doesn’t know how to handle conflicting signals.
Essentially, when I’m looking over the edge of a building or bridge or cliff, my body feels a little off balance and tries to correct itself. This, according to the theory, confuses my brain—which knows that there’s not actually anything to be scared of. I’m not going to fall. I’m not even close enough to fall (there’s a giant wall of railing, in the Space Needle instance). However, because of the confusion and mixed signals coming from my body and brain, I get an “urge” that is really just my body’s way of making sure I avoid a nonexistent threat. It also reaffirms that anxiety is a lovely problem that likes to creep up even when I have nothing to worry about just to tell me that I should be worrying.
So, oddly enough, what feels like an urge to jump is actually my desire not to jump—and to stay alive. Here’s to strange phenomena.