The Third Man Syndrome and the Hallucinatory Effects of Survival

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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?

If you’re unfamiliar with the poem, it was written by T.S. Elliot after reading a strange account from famed Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton. During the last leg of his 1914-1917 expedition, he was hiking with his two remaining companions, desperately trying to reach a British whaling station. They were low on food, dehydrated, poorly equipped, and very near death’s door.

That’s when he reported sensing an unseen member among the group. For whatever reason, he felt that there was a fourth person traveling with them, who despite being impossible to see, was a very comforting and encouraging presence. After they made it to the whaling station, Shackleton kept this detail to himself, before revealing it to a reporter many years later. After news of this encounter reached his former comrades, they too admitted to sensing this strange presence.

So what was this apparition (for lack of a better word) that Shackleton witnessed? It has since been dubbed “the third man factor” by researchers, and it has been experienced by countless survivors all over the world. It usually occurs when someone finds themselves alone in a harrowing survival situation, though sometimes it involves a shared experience between several survivors, as in Shackleton’s case.

But being alone is definitely more common. In the case of Frank Smythe, one of the first explorers to attempt to climb Mount Everest, he too felt the presence of a companion after his real companions decided to give up and head back to base camp. He actually broke off a piece of mint cake and tried handing it to this invisible man, before realizing there was no one there.

Sometimes it’s like that. Just a subtle sense that someone is there. But other times you can hear this person talking to you, encouraging you to not give up. When James Sevigney survived an avalanche in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, he was bleeding out internally and externally, his back was broken in two places and his knees were shattered. It was in that moment he heard a voice say “No you can’t give up. You have to live.” He described it as if this voicing was speaking right next to his ear.

Other times, this presence takes a more physical form. When Peter Hillary was on an expedition to the South Pole in 1998, he claims that at one point he was accompanied by his mother, who had died in a car crash 20 years prior.

The only thing these case all have in common is that they involve moments of extreme stress and danger. Otherwise, they can happen in any environment in the world and have been reported by explorers, mountain climbers, divers, sailors, and prisoners of war. Even some of the survivors of 9/11 claim to have been led out of the Twin Towers by this strange force.

Which brings up an interesting thought, most scientific minds would argue that these apparitions are nothing more than a coping mechanism for a brain on the brink of death, but they don’t always happen to someone who is starving in the woods for days on end. It can happen quite suddenly. It seems to be different than an exhausted brain producing hallucinations, and most claim it is beneficial. All it really takes is shock, fear, and stress. If you’re under those conditions and you’re alone, then you stand a good chance of experiencing the third man syndrome.

As for other explanations, you could say that this might be spiritual in nature. It certainly fits the bill of a “guardian angel.” But others have argued that it’s actually an ancient relic of human psychology called “the Bicameral Brain.” This theory suggests that until about 3000 years ago, our brains were quite different then they are now. The hardware of the brain is the same, but our consciousness was structured in a radically different way.

It’s a difficult subject to explain, but basically some researchers think that our consciousness was once divided into two halves, and we only had control over one (they base this theory on the narrative structures of ancient literature). The other half communicated to us through voices in our heads, and gave us a sense that everything around us was alive, which would explain quite a bit about what we know of ancient religions. But having a bicameral brain would be a lot like having schizophrenia, hence the reason why it died out.

Admittedly, that’s a pretty strange theory, but if it’s true then it wouldn’t surprising to find that there are remnants of this mentality still lurking in our modern brains, which only show up when we’re in survival mode. Other than that, there isn’t a conclusive scientific explanation for the third man syndrome, especially when you factor in the cases of multiple survivors experiencing it simultaneously.

Whatever it is, it would probably be a good idea for preppers to familiarize themselves this strange phenomenon. Mental health is just as crucial to survival as physical health and preparedness. Knowing the symptoms means that you won’t be caught off guard if it happens to you.

At the end of the day though, it’s good to know that if you ever encounter this, whether it is spiritual or scientific (or pseudo-scientific) in nature, rest assured that you have not lost your marbles. You’re experiencing what countless others have witnessed throughout history, and by all accounts, it is not debilitating.

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Contributed by Joshua Krause of Ready Nutrition.

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  • http://www.whyisthesubsinking.com Tim Brown

    My sheep will know my voice. Mystical …….woooooo…..ooooooo……. daily occurrences worldwide

  • Smarty

    I actually experienced this after a pretty severe car accident many years ago. Before anyone got there, there “was a guy there”, talking to me. When I inquired about him later, I was told in no uncertain terms that there was no such guy. Nothing has changed for me….35 years later I still view it as the real deal, and think about it often.

    • cateye

      Interesting….were you lucid enough to remember anything that he said to you? Was he familiar to you?

      • Smarty

        There wasn’t a lot of direct dialogue , but there was some. He was telling me to just be calm, and that it would all (eventually) be ok, and in the end he was 100% correct with everything he said. He was friendly, had red hair, a white shirt and white pants….kind of like a painter would wear, but there was something about him that made him look not completely solid. He wasn’t transparent either… he just seemed to be not completely solid. It’s hard to describe. All these years later, I’m still thinking about it and trying to figure it out. I was completely coherent though. I had a broken rib cage, a slightly punctured kidney, and a bunch of cuts. I also had a totaled 69 AMX which is the most tragic part of the story. The injuries were (fairly) severe, but not life threatening the way I see it, which makes his presence even a little more intriguing to me. A divine intervention? A guardian angel? A ghost? a total hallucination and nobody was actually there? I hope I get an answer some day. Until then, your guess is as good as mine, but it’s fun to look back on once in a while…..

        • disqus_3BrONUAJno

          You might have been experiencing a lucid dream.

        • disqus_3BrONUAJno

          Being chronically curious, the only thing medical I can find that “AMX” means is “Amoxycillin?”

          • Smarty

            Oh…. that’s funny. I was referring to 1969 AMX car, made by American Motors. Reading it again, I can see how you thought that if you didn’t know about the car….

          • disqus_3BrONUAJno

            I preferred the Eagle and the Pacer:-)

        • http://www.whyisthesubsinking.com Tim Brown

          If all was to be well, he should show up with a 69 AMX for you. I’d take this to a higher court

          • Smarty

            That’s a hell of a good point
            Tim. I did replace it with a 77 Firebird Formula, but I never got another AMX and I’ve wanted one ever since.
            This just goes to show you that you can’t even trust your ghost apparitions or psychotic hallucinations these days! The world has gone to hell I tell ya….

  • molon_labe

    When i was a kid, i was being chased home from school by some bullies. Your typical inner city gang banger types. I ran past a tarta bus, and cut in front of it. There was a car i didn’t see speeding past the bus. I tried to stop in time, but slipped. My legs slipped between the middle of the car, a half second away from being ran over. To this day, i don’t know how, but something grabbed my legs and threw them out from under the car. I got up with only a scratch from the fall.
    To this day I don’t know what happened and analyzed it a thousand times. I should have been ran over. But I still remember the pressure of something grabbing me and throwing my legs. I know something was there.

  • one percenter

    Great way to pervert awareness of one’s higher self. No it has nothing to do with old ape-man brains or hallucinations. Guess what, you don’t need to be near death to experience it. Many people connect directly with their higher selves every day to manifest what they need or want. Look of law of attraction books for an idea.

  • http://www.whyisthesubsinking.com Tim Brown

    I saw what looked like a pale mask on a young lady for about 1/2 of a second, and at the same moment felt like i got punched in the stomach. She fell over dead 2 weeks later.

  • Derek the Donkey

    Please don’t seek out extreme states just to study this thing eg drink, drugs, self imposed hardship eg fasting to the point you faint. Yes we’ve all had too much to drink so we forget how we got home LOL.
    But seriously, how do you explain its failures and the drunk falls under a bus??? Got you there haven’t I???