A fear of heights (or acrophobia), can be debilitating (I know it can be for me).

My question is what is the neurological mechanisms that cause a fear of heights in a tall object such as a skyscraper or bridge, but not really occurring in a plane?

I have found that I can not stand too close to a window in the upper floors of a tall building, but will happily look out the window in a plane, inflight and while landing and taking off.


A fear of heights on buildings is very common because there are natural vestibular and vertigo responses within certain height ranges. Furthermore, the effect is heightened if you're exposed to the elements out on a balcony as opposed to within the building.

Fear of flying is almost always related to the sensations of landing and taking off. If you've flown before you'll notice that those two events are very turbulent and it even seems amazing that some airplanes can stay together. However, once in the air you don't have the same effects of acrophobia that many people have on high buildings. Essentially, all perspective of height is removed when you look out the window of an airplane and thus the cues that trigger acrophobia. Your brain sees it like a painting of things in the distance and doesn't process it as height in the same way at all.

Brandt, T., Arnold, F., Bes, W., & Kapteyn, T. S. (1989). "The mechanism of physiological height vertigo. I. Theoretical approach and psychophysics". Acta Otolaryngol, 5-6, 513-23.


Those are different phobias with different names:

Acrophobia- Fear of heights.

Altophobia- Fear of heights.

Batophobia- Fear of heights or being close to high buildings.

Aviophobia or Aviatophobia- Fear of flying.

Pteromerhanophobia- Fear of flying.

In fear of flying is fear of loosing control, fear of not trusting someone else. In fear of heights is lack of trust in oneself and ability to move.

EDIT: In neurological way there are two paths, short and log, in fear of heights the sort one activates first... IMO In Fear of flight there are no short path of fear.

Source: http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~knutson/ans/ledoux00.pdf

  • $\begingroup$ Great information, but, what I am after is the neurological processes that cause one and not the other, especially as they are similar, in that why is it when viewing outside the plane window (relaxed feeling) I do not get the same reaction as looking out a skyscraper window, or a cable car window (abject terror). $\endgroup$
    – user3554
    Aug 2 '13 at 9:05
  • $\begingroup$ I did it, something is wrong with this computer I am using now. $\endgroup$
    – ICanFeelIt
    Aug 2 '13 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ ah yes, I know that feeling! $\endgroup$
    – user3554
    Aug 2 '13 at 9:13

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