It’s the sort of thought you might feel an abject horror at having as you approach the edge of the roof at your friend’s spiffy new high-rise apartment, even for the briefest of moments: “What if I just decided to jump?”

Mental health professionals often call such a self-posed question an example of suicide ideation, a term broadly defined as having any degree of thought about dying by your own hands. A curious study in 2012, however, came up with another possible explanation for why someone might get the urge to jump to their certain doom. Rather than a sign of ideation, it may be the mind’s convoluted way of appreciating life. The researchers even coined a new term for this particular sensation: high place phenomenon.

An Urge Or A Revision?

The authors, led by Jennifer Hames, then a graduate student at Florida State University’s Joiner Lab, surveyed an online sample of 431 nearby undergraduate college students. They asked them if they had ever experienced the sudden urge to jump from a high place and simultaneously assessed their history of ideation, depressive symptoms, and abnormal mood episodes. They also calculated how sensitive to anxiety each participant was by asking how fearful they were of its physical symptoms, such as an elevated heartbeat and shortness of breath.

In total, about one-third of their sample reported the urge. People with high anxiety sensitivity were more likely to have experienced the phenomenon. Upon closer inspection, this finding could be partially explained by respondents’ current levels of ideation. People with high anxiety sensitivity were also more likely to have higher ideation, and people with higher ideation were more likely to report the phenomenon. Interestingly, though, just over 50 percent of people who felt the urge had never had suicidal tendencies. Having higher anxiety sensitivity also increased the possibility someone with low ideation would report the phenomenon.

So what’s going on here? Hames and her colleagues hazarded an educated guess. Maybe in these sensitive non-ideators there was a mix-up between the unconscious and conscious aspects of their mind, a sort of cognitive dissonance. Someone like that could be walking near the edge of a roof when, for whatever reason, a reflex to step back kicks in and they jolt away. Though they may have not been in any danger of falling, their instinctual mind thought they were. As the person tries to quickly rationalize what just happened, they arrive at a conclusion: They jerked away from the roof’s edge because they must have wanted to jump. Soon enough, this thought, which didn’t actually exist beforehand, revises their perception of the situation.

“Thus, individuals who report experiencing the phenomenon are not necessarily suicidal; rather, the experience of high place phenomenon may reflect their sensitivity to internal cues and actually affirm their will to live,” the authors concluded.

Intriguing But Inconclusive

It’s definitely an intriguing theory. Unfortunately, neither Hames nor anyone else seems to have conducted further research on the phenomenon and its origins. The study also has some caveats.  

For one, university students, though a very convenient group of people to study, aren’t necessarily across-the-board representatives of humanity. Secondly, there’s always the chance the volunteers who confessed to having once felt the urge to jump may have misremembered what else they felt at the time. Maybe there were more apparent but forgotten signs of suicidal ideation that had since gone away; maybe the participants didn’t want to reveal their dark thoughts to the researchers; or maybe the survey questions were broad enough to miss some people who did indeed have noticeable levels of ideation.

That doesn’t mean Hames’ study is fatally flawed, however. There’s plenty of research examining how many people have experienced suicide ideation. A 2011 study from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 3.7 percent of the adult U.S. population has had suicidal thoughts in the past year; other studies have pegged the lifetime prevalence of ideation at 8 to 10 percent. Clearly, these numbers don’t come remotely close to the 30 percent of people who reported the high place phenomenon in Hames’ study. That suggests there is a real reason, aside from suicidal thoughts, for feeling the urge to jump.

Without any additional surveys, though, there’s no concrete way to tell if the 50 percent figure of non-ideators who felt the urge is in the right ballpark. Even then, narrowing down the exact reason for the sensation is a different and likely more difficult task.

Still, for those of you who have felt that inexplicable drive to step a bit too close to the chasm but are on otherwise steady mental ground, Hames’ study may offer a dose of relief.

“It makes sense to me,” Dr. Yeates Conwell, co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center, told Medical Daily. “I think the important take-home point from the study is probably that thoughts that might seem scary or unusual actually are fairly common and don’t necessarily indicate any pathology or real risk, and this might be one of them.”