Shackleton (second from left) and his men. Image Source: Daily Mail.
Spectres are not just found in haunted houses and ghost ships, or in abandoned temples and unquiet towns. The most fascinating stories are of apparitions arising in completely desperate circumstances, when the spirits are benevolent. The most famous story of this type concerns an Antarctic exploration expedition gone terribly wrong. It is a documented vision, observed by rational human beings pushed to the very brink of death.
There is a peculiar line in The Waste Land (1922), which T. S. Eliot drew from the incredible story about how Sir Ernest Shakleton saved his men on an ill-fated 1915 expedition to Antarctica. Shakleton's ship, the Endurance, got trapped in the ice, broke up, and sank. The survivors were trapped on ice floes for some months. They finally reached Elephant Island; from there a small, half-starved scouting party had to sail in a lifeboat (through a hurricane) to South Georgia. They then had to climb a mountain for 36 hours to get to the side of the island where there was a whaling station at Stromness. It's one of the most incredible stories of exploration and survival the world has ever seen. As they climbed to safety, pushed past all reason, Shackleton could have sworn another man joined their party, and followed them until they reached help. They could see this shadowy figure out of the corners of their eyes. You can read more about Shackleton's amazing leadership and experience, here and here.
This phenomenon is now called the 'Third Man factor.' In 2009, John G. Geiger expanded his 2008 article 'The Sensed Presence as a Coping Resource in Extreme Environments' into a book on this topic. It has also been equated by some with a 'guardian angel.' See the surprising number of cases below the jump.
- Frank Smythe, last remaining member of the British Mount Everest expedition in 1933, thought he was accompanied by second person, with whom he shared his last mint cake
- Peter Hillary on a 1998 Antarctic expedition felt that his dead mother was guiding him
- Henry Stoker escaped a Turkish prisoner-of-war camp and believed a fourth man joined the party of escapees to help them
- Diver Stephanie Schwabe felt her late husband guiding her when she lost her guideline in a deep underwater cave in the Bahamas in 1997
- Ron DiFrancesco felt an invisible presence leading him down the stairs in the South Tower during September 11, 2001
- Climber Reinhold Messner reported a silent companion who comforted him on a 1970 climb of Nanga Parbat on which his brother died
- Charles Lindbergh on his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 sensed a presence helping him
- Maurice Wilson, an Englishman who died climbing Mount Everest in 1934, wrote of an invisible companion who stayed with him constantly in his tent
A WSJ review sums up Geiger's conclusions:Despite all of the eyewitness accounts I collected, the object of my search, the Third Man, remained elusive. The Australian climber Greg Child said that trying to solve the mystery of the Third Man is like a 'detective stalking the invisible man; there is no fingerprint, no solid evidence at all. The clues lie deep within us.' But since Child said that, a series of scholarly studies have produced solid evidence. The Third Man has been explained as everything from hallucination to divine intervention, but recent neurological research suggests something else.
A presence (called a 'shadow person') was accidentally evoked in a clinical setting by Swiss neurologists when they used electrical stimulation to probe the brain of an epileptic patient, looking for evidence of organic brain damage. It was a presence, an unseen being felt by the patient to be close at hand. But it was not the Third Man. Its most important feature, its powerful beneficence, that critical attribute that has helped people to survive and transcend extreme conditions, was missing.
For those who really like to demystify things down to synapses and hormones, another article sees this extra presence as a form of benevolent doppelgänger, explained by an article in Scientific American:Although Mr. Geiger never shoots down any specific theory, he seems to endorse a biochemical explanation. "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." But the phenomenon is not limited to people in extremis. Mr. Geiger notes that children often experience real-seeming "imaginary friends," while widows and widowers say that they feel the presence of a deceased spouse.
"The Third Man represents a real and potent force for survival," Mr. Geiger writes, "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." Mr. Geiger, however, is at a loss to explain why some can access this power and others can't.
1. Isolation triggers the mind to hallucinate the normal feeling we get when we’re working or traveling among other people.
2. The rational cortical control over emotions shuts down due to oxygen deprivation, sleep deprivation or exhaustion. This opens the door for inner voices and imaginary companions (similar to some cases of alien abduction experiences).
3. Ou[r] temporal lobe body schema (the brain’s image of our body and what it’s doing) is tricked into thinking you have a double. Ever up for a game of rationalization and story making, the brain then constructs a plausible explanation for this double’s presence.
4. The mind schema, our psychological sense of self, is simply coordinating independent neural networks to solve the problem of survival in an extreme situation. The hallucination comes out of its function of making us feel like we’re a single mind.
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