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Third Man Factor: Spirit Guide or Sleight of Mind?

“Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together.” T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land.”

Being alone sucks, which is at least one explanation why Facebook, SETI  and God continue to attract large followings. Children too young for the internet often keep company with invisible companions, as do some adults who suffer from hallucinations brought on by a variety of mental and physical anomalies. Unfortunately, society tends to be suspicious of anyone over the age of seven hanging out with an imaginary friend, or talking to ghosts.

In a new book, “The Third Man Factor” by John Geiger, of the University of Toronto,  the Explorers Club, New York, and a governor of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, argues that perhaps those unseen pals could be our BFFs, “Imagine the impact on our lives if we could learn to access this feeling at will,” he says. “There could be no loneliness with so constant a companion. There could be no stress in life that we would ever again have to ­confront alone.”

Five years ago, Geiger first learned about the “third man factor” when he read a memoir by the Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton about his ordeal during his famous Endurance mission and the “unseen presence” that, according to the explorer, had accompanied Shackleton and two other men on the last harrowing journey back to civilization.

“It seemed to me often that we were four not three,” Shackleton wrote in his memoir, South.

Geiger began to research the phenomena and found over 100 other testaments to the unseen “third man” that Mount Everest climber Doug Scott described as “the third man syndrome: imagining there is someone else walking beside you, a comforting presence telling you what to do next”.

  • Charles Lindbergh on his solo flight across the ­Atlantic in 1927 described on-board “phantoms” during his 1927 attempt to make the first solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris.  Struggling to stay awake during the 33-hour flight, he felt that his companions were friendly and helpful.
  • After a department store collapsed in Seoul, Korea, in 1995, killing more than 300 people, a 19-year-old clerk, Park Seung-hyung, survived for 16 days in an air pocket beneath a crushed lift shaft. When rescued, she reported that a monk had appeared to her several times during her ordeal, giving her an apple and keeping her hope alive.
  • The last man to walk out of the South Tower of the World Trade ­Center before it ­collapsed on 9/11.
  • Fighting his way down stairs he felt he was being “guided”, with “an angel” urging him not to recoil from flames in a stairwell, but to run through them.

“Over the years,” Mr. Geiger writes, “the ­experience has ­occurred again and again, not only to 9/11 survivors, mountaineers, and ­divers, but also to ­polar explorers, ­prisoners of war, solo sailors, shipwreck ­survivors, aviators, and ­astronauts. All have ­escaped ­traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having experienced the close presence of a companion and helper.” Read an excerpt here.

So do we have guardian angels or are these “companions” nothing more than stress-induced hallucinations? Geiger doesn’t claim to have the answer:

“It is possibly even an evolutionary ­adaption,” he writes. “Imagine the advantage for ­primitive man, ­perhaps ­separated during a hunt, alone far from his tribal group, to have the guiding hand of a companion pointing the way home.”

However, Geiger found reports of the “factor” beyond the realm of high-risk explorers and others in survival mode.  He cites children experiencing ­real-seeming “imaginary friends,” while ­widows and widowers say that they feel the presence of a ­deceased spouse.

During the middle ages, hallucinations were not counted as a sign of madness.  It was just assumed your unseen pal was a demon and that you were possessed. Today we might call these demons shadow people, usually sinister or trickster entities often glimpsed out of a corner of the eye.  Science thinks it’s come up with an answer to the creepy feeling that somebody is close by.  Tests on a epileptic patient found that “these perceptions may have been due to a disturbance in the multisensory processing of body and self at the temporoparietal junction.”

Nonetheless,  no matter whether these unseen companions arise from a chemical reaction, evolution or are indeed voices from heaven or  beyond Geiger concludes they come in peace:

“The Third Man represents a real and potent force for survival and the ability to ­access this power is a factor, perhaps the most ­important factor, in determining who will succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds, and who will not.”

Read other reviews here and here.  Or, if you’re running for your life at the moment, maybe you can ask your good friend Harvey to read the book for you and tell you about it later.

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  • William Ballard

    I think it’s reasonable that a social animal like us would have a delusional coping mechanism when faced with solitude. It’s like Hank’s character in that movie Castaway. Arguably the creation of “Wilson” was an asset to him and probably played a factor in his being able to survive all those years on the island.

  • William Ballard

    I think it’s reasonable that a social animal like us would have a delusional coping mechanism when faced with solitude. It’s like Hank’s character in that movie Castaway. Arguably the creation of “Wilson” was an asset to him and probably played a factor in his being able to survive all those years on the island.

  • DavidRavenMoon

    I've had several experiences throughout my life with a presence that has helped me on several occasions, even saving my life when I was about 8. On two occasions it spoke to me with a voice in my head… like a small speaker was stuck in there. Note that this is also the way many people have stated that the “grays” have communicated to them. That and just planting an idea in your mind. Many great human inventions came to light this way.

    I'm starting to think that we may find that all these things are aspects of the same phenomenon, and is some guiding force in our reality. Same thing with UFOs. They exhibit traits that render them “supernatural” or “paranormal”. Grays are seen walking through walls for instance. It's as if these things are real, and they aren't at the same time. At least from the vantage point of what we know about reality.

  • AnnetteMarie

    Thanks Amelia. BTW, my latest granddaughter shares your first name!

  • outlaw109

    I tend to agree with you. Maybe those events – climbing mountains, flying across oceans, etc. – are significant to us, but I don't see them as being significant enough to angels to warrant personal and special intervention. I vote sleight of mind.

  • Darrell

    i remember one i was sliding down the rail of steps of my community center. well one day i learned my lesson and fell off the steps rail and landed on the concrete floor below. then thats when things get sticky….when i fell i didnt feel anything, what was more, the railing i had just fell off of, broke up off and was going to land on me. however, i was “pushed” by some unknown force and out of harms way…and i walked away unharmed. however cool the expreince was, lets just say i dont go sliding rails anymore.

  • Thanks Amelia – a nice article on an important issue.

    Many traditional cultures/spirituallities such as Daoists, First Nations Peoples and Australian Aboriginals believe that the dead are free to interact with the living. My own deceased Taoist masters are among several former living humans, who reguarly accompany me. I once needed proof of this and was given 3 items that only he would know would mean something to me. I couldn't argue with it.

    Why do we as a society see such distinctions and separations and find it so hard to believe that some of them are among us ?

    The challenge of course in any of this is distinguishing what is real from what is percieved as real. Check out the The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes (consciousness is a cultural creation stemming back to our earliest ancestors) and Hearing voices : a common human experience by John Hopkins (a great foray into the world of Schizophrenia – is it hallucination or is there something objectively real ?). Both great reads.

    A small diversion – it's usefull to explore the impact of trauma, loss and grief on the coherance of consciousness. This is a huge issue in indigenous cultures that have been disposessed and suffered from 'stolen generations' and other forms of genocide.

  • roelpoelwijk

    Thank you for posting this Amelia Crater.
    Have you seen the lecture by Ian Xel Lungold ? The lecture is about the Mayan Calendar but that's not why I suggested it. Within the lecture he explains several steps of evolution. Each step comes with changes and each change was 'invented' at the same time on a global scale/effect.
    The same happens now with spiritguides/the afterlife/consciousness. The sad thing from my human judgemental perspective is that there are not enough people searching for real answers and are not figuring this out any time soon. I'm glad I did and still do but at the same time it's a lonely place to know all that I know and understand how hard it is for others to understand and accept even.
    Take care and keep opening those eyes.
    Even it's an old pirate with only one eye. 😉

  • Luinbariel

    I have feelings or experiences like this often enough. But reading this article put me in mind of something else entirely which I had recently seen, and which I feel addresses this issue.

    Good old Star Trek DS9… An episode entitled “Hard Time” (I believe it's season 4) shows O'Brien, who has been made to believe he's been incarcerated for a period of 20 years, has a similar situation with a phantom inmate. It's a little more complicated than that, but perhaps folks would be interested in looking at that.

  • Le Horla?

    “certes, la solitude est dangeureuse pour les intelligences qui travaillent, il nous faut, autoure de nous hommes qui pensent et qui parlent. Quand nous sommes seuls longtemps, nous peuplons le vide de fantômes.” Guy de Maupassant – Le Horla (vérsion 1887)

    “Certainly, solitude is dangerous for the working intelligence, for it is necessary around us men who speak and think. When we are alone a longtime, we populate the void with ghosts.”

    Pretty interesting if you ask me.

  • J.Griffin

    When Shackleton got to that point in his story,
    he began to pace and became rather agitated and told his
    stenographer something like,”You just don’t know….you don’t know! You can’t understand unless you were there!”

    Having had similar experiences,some of which I saw
    (as well as others who were there)
    metal change as I watched-
    I would have to say that he was right.

    It isn’t just “voices or presences”-
    did that Korean girl have any apple cores or remnants?

    It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she did.

    Most of those writing about this have never had such experiences-
    Never trust an expert with no experience.

    It’s like asking a hyper-intellectual to explain “tears of joy”-
    they will just start blathering on about this&that until you can stop them and ask,”But have you ever wept tears of joy?”

    They then just give you this blank look….
    how quickly we can just fill in the blanks with putty rather than simply admit that we have no idea how the fine woodwork is supposed to go together!