Sep 18, 2009 I Amelia Crater

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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