Ernest Shackleton’s epic tale of survival after the sinking of his ship the Endurance in Antarctic waters is well known, but less known is what he and two of his companions experienced after they made their way by open boat, above, to South Georgia Island and trekked across to a whaling station to find salvation. Each of the three felt the presence of someone with them: “During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia,” wrote Shackleton in his memoir, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

The phenomenon has since been widely reported, including by Reinhold Messner and polar explorer Peter Hillary, and it’s been given the name “the third man factor,” after the T.S. Eliot line, “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.”

True adventure begins at the edge of the known world, be it a physical place, physiological limit, or intellectual search beyond what we knew before, and all of those elements came together a few years ago when scientists in Switzerland made a groundbreaking discovery potentially explaining the third man phenomenon.  For the first time, Olaf Blanke and his colleagues replicated this experience in the laboratory using subjects that were otherwise perfectly healthy.


The test was so eerie some refused to continue.

The scientists developed a device that allowed a healthy human test subject to draw a pattern that was then replicated on the subject’s back with a slight time delay.  The scientists determined that the delay between the subjects’ movements and the mirrored pattern caused the subject to misidentify the source of sensory and motor input-essentially, it caused a disconnect between the body position and senses to create the eerie feeling of a ghost in the room.  The sensation was so powerful that a few participants even refused to continue the test.

The effect is now well documented, though it wasn’t until Shackleton wrote about it that others were forthcoming. Despite the frequency of encounters, many people, actually even Shackleton himself, seemed hesitant to talk about their experiences-understandably so, given they were often deeply personal and sounded a little crazy.  The visions that appeared to people were both men and women, and sometimes even a particular person, like a dead spouse, parent, or friend.  These visions often spoke to the person in distress, providing comfort, advice, or simply company, and in most cases the presence disappeared again, just before help arrived. Whereas most hallucinations disorient and alarm, these visions were of benevolent beings who provided comfort and aid when people needed it most.

But where did this come from? Credible people, teetering on the brink of death, seemed to be losing their minds. Was there something inherent in exploration-or perhaps simply in life-or-death situations-that seemingly drove so many people to the edge of sanity? Perhaps there was some environmental factor, some commonality between them that caused them to see ghosts.

Charles Lindbergh was "accompanied" on his solo flight across the Atlantic.

Charles Lindbergh was “accompanied” on his solo flight across the Atlantic.

In 1981, an anesthesiologist postulated that the freezing cold probably caused neurochemical changes in the brain-early symptoms of full-fledged hypothermia soon to follow.  This hypothesis fit the trials endured by mountaineers, polar explorers, and maybe even some people lost at sea, but why would a Victorian-era British explorer have these visions in the jungle? Why would Charles Lindberg converse with ghostly copilots during his famous voyage? Neither of these men was freezing to death.

Another researcher thought it may be explained by extremely low levels of blood glucose seen in starving explorers. This also seemed reasonable, given that Shackleton and his men were burning thousands of calories a day-far more than could be replenished, even under the most luxurious circumstances. This could not, however, explain the case of Ron DiFrancesco, who followed a ghostly presence through a wall of flames and out of the crumbling World Trade Center.  He went from a regular day at the office to a disaster survivor in only one hour and thirteen minutes-hardly enough time to be calorically depleted.

Perhaps, thought one doctor and mountaineer, it could be hypoxia, which would impair the function of the brain. This held for some of the climbers, and possibly for DiFrancesco in the smoke-choked Trade Center, though is less likely for people at low altitudes such as those lost at sea.

None of these theories totally fit, and strangely enough, many of the people who experienced these visions were not near death at all. There was no way this variety of stories could be explained by a single physiological factor. There must be something else. What if this were not so much physiological, but a trick of the mind-a means to survive at the limits of human existence?

Perhaps at its root, there’s a disconnect between the body and the senses, or in the words of scientist Paul Firth, who himself experienced the phenomenon while climbing Aconcagua, “dysfunctions of personal space and self-position.” It seems plausible that monotony and stress create an environment for dissociation with the senses that, when coupled with physiological factors, allow the psychological factors to take hold.  Other researchers had consistent theories that a heightened state of awareness without physical stimulation, or the oxymoronic combination of boredom and alertness, may actually be enough to summon these ghosts.

As it turns out, nearly a decade ago these same scientists who announced the discovery in November demonstrated damage to the brain’s parieto-temporal junction-the part of the brain that distinguishes between the self and others-can cause visions of another person, frequently mirroring one’s own movements. They demonstrated that electrical stimulation to this area can provoke similar visions.  Then the researchers in Lausanne ultimately induced a vision, first by exploring the cause, and finally-after over a decade of effort-demonstrating the effect. They caused a disconnect between the body and the senses and there it was.  The third man appeared.

The explanations of science might satisfy the mind, but leave the spirit unfulfilled. The most poignant elements of the third man syndrome remained unaddressed. Why did so many people at the breaking point see someone they knew? Why did they disappear the moment rescue was at hand? Why were these helpers almost always benevolent, while those in the lab were not? Why did these real people in distress try to aid their ghostly companion, as when Frank Smythe offered half of his mint cake to a ghost on Everest? Why, as in Shackleton’s party or a group of miners trapped underground, does the third man appear to multiple people at the same time? The “how” could be understood, vaguely, but the why was far from explained.

And that’s okay. This whole concept perfectly exemplified what’s wonderful about adventure. Just like the adventurers they studied, these researchers-decades of researchers-identified a goal and overcame the odds to achieve that destination. All that truly mattered is that researchers and adventurers alike pushed the boundaries to experience something greater, something beyond the world we know. Perhaps the third man exists to help us access our deepest reserves of knowledge and strength, to find incredible ability we didn’t know we had. The third man is adventure in its purest form, appearing in the harshest places, beyond our physical and mental limits, and through it we explore beyond reality as we know it and transcend our greatest limits-the limits within ourselves.


For more on the ghostly weirdness of explorers in distress, read Maria Coffey’s Explorers of the Infinite.

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