Love and fear of heights: The pathophysiology and psychology of height imbalance

John R. Salassa, David A. Zapala

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Individual psychological responses to heights vary on a continuum from acrophobia to height intolerance, height tolerance, and height enjoyment. This paper reviews the English literature and summarizes the physiologic and psychological factors that generate different responses to heights while standing still in a static or motionless environment. Perceptual cues to height arise from vision. Normal postural sway of 2 cm for peripheral objects within 3 m increases as eye-object distance increases. Postural sway >10 cm can result in a fall. A minimum of 20 minutes of peripheral retinal arc is required to detect motion. Trigonometry dictates that a 20-minute peripheral retinal arch can no longer be achieved in a standing position at an eye-object distance of >20 m. At this distance, visual cues conflict with somatosensory and vestibular inputs, resulting in variable degrees of imbalance. Co-occurring deficits in the visual, vestibular, and somatosensory systems can significantly increase height imbalance. An individual's psychological makeup, influenced by learned and genetic factors, can influence reactions to height imbalance. Enhancing peripheral vision and vestibular, proprioceptive, and haptic functions may improve height imbalance. Psychotherapy may improve the troubling subjective sensations to heights.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)378-382
Number of pages5
JournalWilderness and Environmental Medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2009


  • Height enjoyment
  • Height imbalance
  • Height instability
  • Height intolerance
  • Height physiology
  • Love and fear of heights
  • Risk taker

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Emergency Medicine
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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