Acrophobia and Free Will

Golden Gate Bridge - AcrophobiaI remember a time I was hosting a programmer from Romania (yes, that guy). And he wanted to take some pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge before he left. So I drove him over to the north side of the bridge where there is parking with a great view of the bay and the city. And it is just a short walk to the bridge itself. I went with him. But after only 30 feet onto the bridge, I had to leave him. I was suffering from extreme acrophobia. I was panicked.

I had suffered with acrophobia my entire life, yet this was a little surprising to me. As part of my work at that time, I spent a tremendous amount of time flying around in a little 2-seat Cessna. It was something that I very much did not want to do when the company had started. But the hardware/software system that we were developing was so complicated and fragile at the time that I was the only one who could do it. I managed it in part by just focusing on the work I had to do. But the truth is that it wasn’t that big a deal regardless. I have never had aerophobia — the fear of flying.

(I do have a very rational fear the wings falling off planes because I’ve known too many engineers in my life and I don’t have a high opinion of them. But that’s another issue.)

I’ve seen The Matrix a dozen times, and every time Neo goes out on that ledge, I squirm in my seat. I’m doing so right now just thinking about it.

The truth is that I don’t have to be on the Gold Gate Bridge to have a panic attack. I get pretty much the same thing walking over an overpass. And I’ve come to think that the basis of my acrophobia is my sense of free will. (I don’t believe in actual free will, of course.) It doesn’t much matter that I’m not suicidal. When I see a ledge that I could run to and throw myself over, I panic. It’s not the ledge; it’s my imagination that terrifies me.

I’m the same way when I watch films. I’ve seen The Matrix a dozen times, and every time Neo goes out on that ledge, I squirm in my seat. I’m doing so right now just thinking about it. The mind is a crazy thing and what goes on inside it is often much more threatening than what’s going on outside in the “real” world.

None of this is to say that I don’t have a general fear of heights. But if I’m in something like an aerial tram, I might be ill at ease, but I’m not freaking out. On the other hand, if the tram was open air, I’d be lying on the floor convulsing. And to be honest, I’m not sure I would want to get rid of this kind of fear. One of my better abilities is to visualize hypotheticals really well in my mind. I’d hate to lose that just for the sake of being able to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

How can you hate a fear that allows you to imagine what it would be like to take that step — even if the the reality is tragic?

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

18 thoughts on “Acrophobia and Free Will

  1. I saw a comedian just last Friday doing a bit about this. He mentioned driving into Zion National Park and just getting terrified he might swerve.

    So just to be evil, I looked around the park website to see if I could find pictures of terrifying roads (to show the SO, who hates roads like that.) Alas, not as many as I’d hoped. But all kinds of great other stuff! There are trails so precipitous you have to cling to a rope bolted to a cliff face. There’s one trail which isn’t a dirt trail; it’s a river you wade in that comes up to your waist and has sheer 2000-foot walls on either side. (Bring a stout walking stick; the riverbed consists of bowling ball-sized rocks. Look out for flash floods!) Oh, and tarantulas, cougars, etc.

    I loved this. Not that I’m insane enough to try it, but that a government agency puts out a visitor information booklet warning of all the ways you can die. That’s for promotional purposes. God bless the Park Service. Here’s a Flickr photo you’re sure to enjoy:

    I especially liked how the couple is gazing romantically at each other instead of the HORRIBLE DEATH a foot away . . .

    • I drove down into Zion canyon (East entrance) at midnight on a pitch black night in 1992. At some point well before the series of switchbacks bottomed out, the drum brakes on my van faded away, leaving me with the electric brakes on the travel trailer I was pulling…

      I let my companion sleep through it, as she was already in a bad mood.

      • Probably best to let her sleep! You’ve basically got two choices in that situation: one, pull over (if there’s a spot) and flag down help, then get a ride somewhere you can sleep and wait for morning to service the truck. Or, two: just bet on red and finish the drive. It’s almost certain your companion if awake would have insisted on #1, it would have taken hours and made her feel more miserable. Whereas if #2 contains the risk of Grim Death it’s nicer to let someone sleep through most of the scary part and only be jostled awake a few seconds before you were both smashed into puma food.

    • Exactly. Why don’t they just step off it and get the agony over with?! Although I have to admit there is something about the way the photo is taken that makes it less threatening. But I suspect the photo was clicked, the photographer said, “Okay!” and they ran back onto the cliff because they don’t look totally insane.

      • Out of respect for the fears delineated in the post, I tried to describe the stuff that scared me in words and select a happy (only slightly terrifying) picture typical of the NPS. Still, though, people. Extreme hiking is not wise. Extreme anything is not wise!

        • I admire people who are into it. But I try not to think about it, because I’m a natural worrier. But hanging out with skydivers was really cool. They are very communal. Even though many of them are flat out crazy.

  2. Part of my hindbrain is convinced that I can fly. Maybe due to the numerous vivid flying dreams I had when I was young. Anyway, I find being near the edge of a precipice quite unnerving. It isn’t the height itself, it’s that I can’t shake the feeling that if my attention wanders I might just step off the edge without thinking.

    By the way, I tried some basic hang-gliding years ago — running starts off low hills, but still a few seconds of actual solo flight. It felt just like my dreams.

    • That might be part of it for me too. I don’t pay much attention. I commonly hit cracks in the sidewalk with my feet and fall down. So I’m sure part of it is the rational belief that I might just screw up.

  3. I have that fear of what could happen and the imagination to make me think it could happen with a lot of things. Not a good idea with someone with my issues.

    Terry Pratchett did have a good point in one his novels though-in it the character, Tiffany Aching, goes on her first broom ride and she thinks to herself that she doesn’t have a fear of heights as in mountains but fear of depths because of how scary it is to shoot away from the earth.

  4. I grew up a short distance from College Park, MD Airport, which is/was the oldest continuously operating airport in the world. (They were shut down temporarily after 9/11, but they still might hold the record.) I used to watch the planes a lot, read all I could about them, and always wanted to learn to fly small airplanes. When I got into my teens, I realized I had a fear of heights. After college, at work, I was well-known for being afraid to fly and one of the hardware engineers told me, “Everyone’s afraid to fly–that’s why they have bars in airports!”

    • I’ve been up in the air in small planes, hang gliders and parasail. As long as I have wings attached, there’s no fear at all. It’s being near an edge that’s scary.

    • Good point! If I were wealthy, I would probably learn to fly a helicopter. I don’t find planes that interesting. But the few times I got to fly in a helicopter was like riding on an insect. It was amazing.

  5. Since you mention it, I also once had a starter lesson in a helicopter. I found tipping over to face the ground in order to go forward to be a little freaky. And trying to accomplish more than basic steering was as difficult as I’d heard, even though I only had hands on half the controls. Trying to hover in place requires constant fine adjustments to the cyclic (joystick) but there is a delayed response and little tactile feedback. This quickly leads to oscillations and out of control pendulum swings as you try to correct. Can’t imagine how the first pilots survived without an instructor backing them up.

    • Now that you mention it, I would have been to terrified to learn. But I flew with some very good pilots and they made it look easy. I still find the engineering of them amazing — the way the back orthogonal back unit manages to offset the angular momentum of the big unit (I don’t even know what they’re called). I think the more physics you know, the more amazing they are. But being inside was thrilling. And I say that as a man who usually doesn’t find such things thrilling. Like: I’m not that keen on roller coasters.

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