Third man syndrome

25th April 2024. Reading Time: 5 minutes General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know. 933 page views. 0 comments.

Adventurers in life-or-death situations often report an unseen force guiding them to safety. Known as third man syndrome, whether spiritual or scientific, this phenomenon appears to have saved lives!

From 1914 - 1916, Ernest Shackleton and his team went on an expedition to Antarctica.  It soon became a fight for their lives as their boat the Endurance was trapped in ice facing almost certain death. They set off on foot to cross the treacherous ranges and glaciers of South Georgia to reach a whaling station taking a grueling 36 hours.  Miraculously they survived.  

Years later Shackleton confided to a journalist "it seemed to me that we were four, not three" which helped him get through the journey.  Not saying anything to his companions at the time, they later admitted they also sensed there was another person with them.  The imaginary figure provided them each with a sense of hope and direction and quite likely saved their lives. Others who have experienced life-threatening circumstances talk of similar stories — that an additional person appeared and guided them to safety. It is what is called Third Man Syndrome or the Third Man Factor.

The title was coined from a T.S. Eliot poem, “The Waste Land,”

“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”

TS Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland:

John Geiger who was the author of 'The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible' (2010) talks about different scientific explanations but concedes that he believes a spiritual explanation makes more sense.  Geiger spent five years tracking down the stories of people who've experienced the Third Man phenomenon.  You may also have heard it described as a Sensed Presence.

A sensed presence

A sensed presence is something that happens to a person who has become isolated or is in an unfamiliar environment. They are usually in some ways experiencing a large amount of stress and could even be in a life-or-death situation. There are occurrences where people are either stranded or trapped in a location, or in what they feel is a hopeless situation. They feel at the time, that they have someone there with them to help them through the situation, almost like a guardian angel. A perfect example that I have seen used to describe this phenomenon is from the movie 'Gravity'. Sandra Bullock's character is stuck alone in space. She turns off the oxygen supply in her compartment to complete what she feels is inevitable - death. She suddenly gets a visitation by George Clooney's character who has died earlier in the movie. He talks her through the situation. Even though she realised it was a hallucination, she followed his advice and ultimately survived the situation. While this is quite an extreme example and most of us probably won't get stuck out in space, you get the idea. While it is not known exactly what causes a sensed presence experience to occur, research indicates that low temperatures seem to be a common feature.

Possible explanations for a sensed presence include the motion of boats, atmospheric or geomagnetic activity, and altered sensations and states of consciousness induced by changes in brain chemistry triggered by stress, lack of oxygen, monotonous stimulation, or a buildup of hormones. There is in fact exciting new evidence from a research group led by Olaf Blanke demonstrating that it is the precise stimulation of specific brain regions that tricks people into feeling the "presence" of a ghostly apparition.

Psychology Today

A sensed presence experience can range from a person just feeling like there is someone nearby, to having a full hallucination of seeing or talking to the person that isn't really there.  Geiger above leans toward more of a spiritual experience, others argue it is what happens when our brain kicks into hyperarousal or Fight or Flight.

Fight or Flight

When your brain feels like you are in some sort of danger where it feels that you are at risk of harm or attack, it goes into what is called 'hyperarousal' or 'acute stress response'. It is otherwise referred to as fight or flight mode. When your brain identifies a threat, it releases epinephrine, (otherwise known as adrenaline) which prepares your body to either run for your life or to stay and confront and fight the threat in front of you.  This release of adrenaline allows the body to release extra glucose into the bloodstream raising our blood sugar level for a burst of energy.  It allows the bronchial passages to expand meaning we can get more air.  Our pupils dilate creating what is referred to as tunnel vision meaning you focus in on a particular area however you cannot see out of the corner of your eye - only what is in front of you. We all have different fears and different tolerance levels which is why this mode is extremely personal. What may set one person off, may not bother another person at all. It all comes down to our brains. Some people will stand and confront the fear ready to fight and your body has the adrenaline ready with extra energy and strength to help you do so. Others will instinctively run away, and again they have the extra energy and lots of oxygen to help them do that. It all happens within a split second and it is an automatic response your brain makes on your behalf.  It is not a conscious decision, it is a reaction.  It is something that is triggered when the brain feels you are at threat. It may be a very real physical threat or it could even be imaginary.  So while you are not seeing it, maybe you are feeling it.  Either way, your body is reacting.

What is most intriguing about this phenomenon is that we know it does exist.  While it could be spiritual or scientific, what can't be argued is that it seems to be the defining factor for survival in critical circumstances.

If we understand that the Third Man Factor is a part of us, the way adrenaline is ... then we can start to access it more easily.  It's not a hallucination in the sense that hallucinations are disordering. This is a very helpful and orderly guide.  It's an astonishing capacity if you think about,  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.

John Geiger

Have you experienced this?  Tell us your story below!


The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible (2010) John Geiger

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