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Finding the Third Man

Donate Reports from some extreme adventurers say that a benevolent presence sometimes appears to provide comfort.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Health, Paranormal

Skeptoid Podcast #898
August 22, 2023
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Finding the Third Man

They call it the third man factor. It's commonly said to be reported by people on the extreme edges of the world — polar explorers during raging storms, mountain climbers pinned down in hypoxic and freezing conditions, sleep deprived solo sailors beaten by wind and waves for days at a time. Yet afterward, they reported that they did not actually feel alone at all; that during their harrowing experience, they felt accompanied by the presence of an unseen companion who seemed to provide encouragement and comfort. Is this a phenomenon acknowledged by neuroscience, or is it just a few disconnected anecdotal stories? Or, could the facts of the third man factor lie elsewhere?

Nearly every article about the third man factor cites the same several cases, and nearly always leading off with the one about Sir Ernest Shackleton in Antarctica. Shackleton and two companions had to cross mountainous South Georgia Island on foot, a distance of some 40 km, in May of 1916. It was an unspeakably difficult journey during which the men were exhausted and sleep deprived. It took them 36 hours, but those hours followed three months of hardships, the like of which can scarcely be found outside the annals of early polar exploration. A few weeks after their successful completion, while comparing notes, all three men found that during that trek across the island they had each often had the strange feeling that there was a fourth man in their party.

A likely reason that all the articles about the third man factor are so similar is that it wasn't really even a recognized thing until 2009, when adventure author John G. Geiger published his book The Third Man Factor which detailed a number of such cases. Although most cases are the illusion of a second person experienced by a lone individual, Geiger drew the name for the phenomenon from T.S. Eliot's 1922 poem The Waste Land. In it, a couple walking in the mountains experiences a strange sound from on high, a vision of hooded hordes, a phantom city on the horizon, and:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
— But who is that on the other side of you?

It's interesting that you won't find any published research on the third man factor, or third man syndrome as it is sometimes alternately referred to. It's not listed in the DSM as a psychological condition. Search the academic journals all you want, you won't find it listed. Does that mean Geiger made it up? Well, no. It would be more accurate to say that Geiger called attention to, and gave a name to, one type of manifestation that's part of a much broader, and already well established, type of neurological response.

To better understand what that is, let's touch upon a few other cases where the third man factor has been reported:

  • Mountain climber Frank Smythe turned back from a solo ascent of Mount Everest in 1933, and sensed the presence of an unseen fellow climber accompanying him back down. It was so powerful that at one point he broke off a piece of food, and almost out of habit, offered it — before remembering he was alone.

  • In 1968, a worker in Antarctica named Alan Parker became disoriented during a dangerous whiteout. He felt the powerful, comforting presence of another person, with whom he felt safer, which lasted until the conditions eased up and he was out of danger.

  • Polar explorer Ann Bancroft discussed her experience on a 2010 appearance on the NPR show Wait Wait Don't Tell Me: "There's also this element of — some people would describe it as spirits or a presence that appears when things are very difficult, physically and emotionally. You know, when you're really putting out. So the third man aura is sort of an appearance."

What these experiences all had in common was something we've talked about a number of times on Skeptoid, and that's the acute stress response, more familiarly known as the fight or flight response. In all of these cases, people were pushed to their edges. They were under a real threat of death. They were cold, tired, and under duress. This can trigger our bodies to enter the acute stress response. Blood is contracted away from vulnerable extremities. Nonessential functions like digestion and reproduction stop to save resources. Adrenaline floods the body, the heart rate rises, muscles fill with hyperoxygenated blood. Sight and hearing become aroused. In short, your brain goes into an unusual state.

And various unusual brain states are where the neurological and psychiatric literature is just beginning to be peppered with the phrase "sensed presence". It's often described as a spatial hallucination — no other elements need be present for one to perceive that a particular space is occupied by the presence of a person. Sensed presences can accompany epileptic auras, brain lesions, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and schizophrenia (among other conditions); but in healthy people, they can accompany sleep paralysis, partial sensory deprivation, frequent nightmares, bereavement, and more. The association with surviving in extreme environments has been part of the literature for some time, but without an obvious, agreed-upon mechanism.

What seems clear — at least within our narrow Skeptoid-sized look today — is that the acute stress response, combined with a real sense of danger often found in extreme environments, can produce a sensed presence hallucination, even if we don't know exactly why. More recent studies of schizophrenia may shed some light. Newer research has indicated that this sensation is caused by the brain's misperceiving of its own location, and so it "fills in the gaps" by constructing a plausible scenario, which is that there's another person there. We've been able to replicate this perception in healthy individuals in at least two different ways: direct electrical stimulation of the temporoparietal junction, and the use of a robotic mechanism with which a person can point forward and feel a corresponding tap on their own back, literally displacing their body's position from their own perspective.

We do know that when we carry the physical effects of exhaustion and sleep deprivation just a little bit further, we definitely encounter hallucinations that go beyond mere spatial ones. Auditory, visual, and tactile hallucinations can become dramatic. This can be attributed to hypnogogia, a state of semi-consciousness in which hallucinations commonly appear. Many of us have had these experiences, such as thinking we hear a door slam or footsteps just as we're falling asleep.

Going back to Geiger's book, we find that he doesn't really differentiate between spatial hallucinations during the acute stress response and more dramatic hypnogogic hallucinations when people are pushed to the extremes of exhaustion — he intermixes them freely in his book and regards them as the same thing. Here are a few more of his examples that go to extremes:

  • Aron Ralston, a mountaineer who became trapped on a solo hike in Utah in 2003, was forced to cut off his own arm to survive. Exhausted, dehydrated, and in shock, at one point he saw a hallucination of a little boy, whom he interpreted to be his future son, and was able to lift the little boy onto his shoulders.

  • A competitor in the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile sled dog marathon race, was invited by a fellow competitor to rest in a warm hotel room. Another competitor found him asleep in the snow, thus saving his life.

  • During his 33-hour solo flight over the Atlantic, aviator Charles Lindbergh experienced whole groups of people in the plane with him, invisible but present and talkative, giving him navigational advice and keeping him company.

And from outside Geiger's book:

  • Dr. Michael Shermer of the Skeptic Society has often spoken of the hallucinations he and fellow competitors would experience during extreme bicycle marathons. Once, after 83 straight hours on the bike, Shermer saw his support crew as space aliens who were trying to capture him.

Geiger probably also goes a little too far with his idea that the so-called third man who shows up is generally beneficial, appearing to render assistance when needed. After his book came out, he told NPR:

It's an astonishing capacity if you think about it. And it sort of hints at this idea that as human beings we are never truly alone, that we have this ability to call upon this resource when we most need it in our lives.

There does not seem to be any evidence supporting this notion, that calling up some kind of guardian angel (for lack of a better term) is an ability we all have that we can draw upon for help in our darkest moments. Indeed, for the cases where it has been reported, none of the witnesses (that I have read) said they called upon it deliberately, as if to conjure up some guardian or helper. At best, they felt the presence of another person; and it was a positive, comforting feeling. At worst, the hallucinations can be frightening — like Shermer's alien kidnappers, or in another account Shermer tells, of a fellow bike racer at the limits of human exhaustion who saw murderous mujahadeen pursuing him and making him ride faster to escape. In the classic case of hypnagogic hallucinations, sleep paralysis, the hallucinated beings are nearly always terrifying, often attacking the person.

Neither are the milder spatial hallucinations, in which no entity can be seen or heard, always comforting as they are in Geiger's accounts. Research has found that outside of extreme survival experiences, one of the most common types of sensed presence is felt by people who suffer from social anxiety. In these cases, the sensed presence is often judgmental, watching them, scrutinizing them, when they find themselves in a situation of powerlessness.

Considering the lack of academic papers about the third man factor, Geiger co-authored one himself with psychologist Peter Suedfeld, as a chapter in the book Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. The authors did acknowledge some potential scientific explanations for the phenomenon, but found weaknesses in each; their primary hypothesis was that the third man was, in fact, an actual entity, as evidenced by the knowledge the third man always had:

What all of these had in common was access to knowledge and wisdom beyond that of the perceiver.

and that the third man would put that knowledge into actual productive use:

Above all, perhaps, is the need to understand the dramatic helpfulness of the sensed presence, which includes not only encouragement but also factual information such as navigational directions and, on occasion, physical intervention.

It seems unnecessary to conflate actual benevolent beings with sensed presences, as it's hard to agree that "knowledge beyond that of the perceiver" is a proven component of these reports. The established body of work on sensed presences, spatial hallucinations, and hypnagogic hallucinations does seem adequate to explain the reports that are on record, even if researchers have not yet nailed down an agreed mechanism. Whether the third man factor needs to be a thing in the literature at all is also not clear, as the phenomenon appears (to me, anyway) to be cherrypicked selections from a vast database of anecdotes and reports, the vast majority of which are consistent with currently accepted phenomena. Shackleton's unseen fourth companion, while a nice part of the story, played no role in it at all; to the point that none of the three men even thought to mention him until weeks later. And so, for now, we leave the third man where he can best serve: on the pages of adventure literature.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Finding the Third Man." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 22 Aug 2023. Web. 24 Feb 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4898>

 

References & Further Reading

Alderson-Day, B. "The New, Strange Science Behind Felt Presences." Ideas: Psychology. TIME USA, LLC, 1 Apr. 2023. Web. 10 Aug. 2023. <https://time.com/6267299/science-behind-presence-ghosts/>

Alderson-Day, B. "The Silent Companions." Cognition and perception, Emotion, Stress and anxiety. British Psychological Society, 7 Mar. 2016. Web. 10 Aug. 2023. <https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/silent-companions>

Blanke, O., Pozeg, P., Hara, M. "Neurological and Robot-Controlled Induction of an Apparition." Current Biology. 17 Nov. 2014, Volume 24, Issue 22: 2681-2686.

Cook, C.M., Persinger, M.A. "Experimental Induction of the Sensed Presence in Normal Subjects and an Exceptional Subject." Perceptual and Motor Skills. 1 Oct. 1997, Volume 85, Issue 2: 10.2466/pms.1997.85.2.6.

Editors. "Understanding the stress response." Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School, 6 Jul. 2020. Web. 10 Aug. 2023. <https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response>

Folk, J. "Anxiety Hallucinations." Anxiety Disorders. Anxiety Centre, 19 Dec. 2021. Web. 10 Aug. 2023. <https://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-disorders/symptoms/anxiety-hallucinations/>

Geiger, J. The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. New York: Weinstein Books, 2009.

Geiger, J., Suedfeld, P. "The Sensed Presence as a Coping Resource in Extreme Environments." Omnilogos. Omnilogos, 1 Jan. 2008. Web. 10 Aug. 2023. <https://omnilogos.com/sensed-presence-as-coping-resource-in-extreme-environments/>

Hammond, C. "Felt presence: Why we sometimes feel invisible others." Future. BBC, 29 May 2023. Web. 10 Aug. 2023. <https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20230526-felt-presence-why-we-sometimes-feel-invisible-others>

Raz, G. "Guardian Angels or the Third Man Factor?" All Things Considered. National Public Radio, 13 Sep. 2009. Web. 10 Aug. 2023. <https://www.npr.org/2009/09/13/112746464/guardian-angels-or-the-third-man-factor>

Sagal, P. "Explorer Ann Bancroft Plays Not My Job." Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. National Public Radio, 26 Jun. 2010. Web. 10 Aug. 2023. <https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128116886>

Shermer, M. "The Sensed-Presence Effect." Scientific American. Springer Nature America, Inc., 1 Apr. 2010. Web. 10 Aug. 2023. <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-sensed-presence-effect/>

Solomonova, E., et. al. "Sensed presence as a correlate of sleep paralysis distress, social anxiety and waking state social imagery." Consciousness and Cognition. 1 Mar. 2008, Volume 17, Issue 1: 49-63.

Suedfeld, P., Mocellin, J. "The Sensed Presence in Unusual Environments." Environment and Behavior. 1 Jan. 1987, Volume 19, Issue 1: 10.1177/0013916587191002.

 

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