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Gettin' Down With Your Fear of Heights

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I've always had problems with heights, perhaps to an irrational degree. Growing up, we had a fold-down ladder that led from the garage to the attic, and for years, I hated climbing it. Once I got used to that, I found the courage to climb the big oak tree in our backyard -- until I fell out of it one day, smacking my head on a few branches on the way down and landing in a big pile of spiny plants. Ouch. I figured heights weren't for me and that was that, and for years I avoided them. Until recently, that is.

My wife joined a climbing gym, and I started to tag along. Then in New Zealand, I realized that my having any fun at all kind of depended on me facing this fear -- or at least managing it -- so that I could do the helicopter tours, small plane flights, paragliding, walks along rickety swing bridges and scenic drives up hair-raising, barrier-less switchbacks without having panic attacks. I succeeded to a degree -- here's proof -- and it got me wondering about acrophobia, the fear of heights, and what makes it tick. Here's some of what I learned.

Latching onto that early falling-out-of-tree episode, I grew up believing my fear was mostly associative. But I was wrong -- unlike most phobias, acrophobia is one of the few that's non-associative. Studies have shown that you're not conditioned to be afraid of heights; it's more of a hard-wired, Darwinian thing. An experiment called the "visual cliff" done on babies (creepy!) proved that even infants are wary of heights: when presented with a glass floor that had a clear view of a 10-foot drop beneath it, many infants, toddlers and young animals were reluctant to venture onto it.

So why the differences in people's experiences of acrophobia? Why can my wife climb a 30-foot wall with merely a rope attached to her waist while I get the willies at half that height? Researchers have wondered this too, and some have found that a person's balance is a key factor. It should surprise no one that people with balance disorders usually report a fear of heights, but it seems this is a two-way street; having a fear of heights may indicate that you have a balance disorder, if only a slight one. From Wikipedia's surprisingly adept entry on the subject:

The human balance system integrates proprioceptive, vestibular and nearby visual cues to reckon position and motion. As height increases visual cues recede and balance becomes poorer even in normal people. However most people respond by shifting to more reliance on the proprioceptive and vestibular branches of the equilibrium system. An acrophobic, on the other hand, continues to overrely on visual signals whether because of inadequate vestibular function or incorrect strategy. Locomotion at a high elevation requires more than normal visual processing. The visual cortex becomes overloaded resulting in confusion. Some proponents of the alternative view of acrophobia warn that it may be ill-advised to encourage acrophobics to expose themselves to height without first resolving the vestibular issues. Research is underway at several clinics.

This phenomenon, by the way, is totally distinct from that of vertigo, a rarer disorder in which sufferers experience acute dizziness triggered by certain visual stimuli (usually peeking over the edges of tall things). In any case, the idea that my fear of heights is related to my balance makes a lot of sense to me, because let's face it -- I'll never be a ballroom dancer. My balance sucks. My wife, on the other hand, does Pilates twice a week and spends a lot of time building up the strength in her core (ie, her center of balance), which must have something to do with it, and also -- crucially, I think -- she's pretty short, and I'm pretty tall.

Here comes my crazy hypothesis, and the reader response portion of the blog. I'm 6'3. My center of gravity is higher than most people's, and it's common knowledge that, as in the case of some high-set, flip-prone SUVs, it's harder to stay upright when your center of gravity is raised. (Ever see a low-rider flip over? It's hard to do.) By extension, doesn't it make sense that tall people are more likely to be afraid of heights than short people? I've certainly met more tall agoraphobics in my life than short ones, though it's my no means a rule. But answer me this:

Are you afraid of heights?
If so, do you feel your fear is tied to a particular traumatic event you experienced, or totally non-associative?
And finally -- how tall are you?

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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fun
How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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