The Third Man Factor- By John Geiger

There is a great write up about this book in the Sunday Star Times Today – the Focus section. I also found it online at this site here

Book cover
Book cover

Here it is

Liz Porter

June 28, 2009

WHEN John Geiger read Sir Ernest Shackleton’s memoir of his 1914-1917 Antarctic expedition, he was transfixed by the legendary polar explorer’s tale of his battle for survival after the team’s ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice.

In the final weeks of the expedition, Shackleton and two companions had made a heroic, last-ditch attempt to reach a British whaling station, so they could get help to the other members of the expedition who were sick, exhausted and waiting 1100 kilometres away at Elephant Island. Filthy, ragged, dehydrated and ill-equipped, the trio trekked 38 kilometres across glaciers and icy mountain ranges on the island of South Georgia, reaching the British settlement 36 hours later.

The Toronto-based writer was in awe of Shackleton’s powers of physical endurance. But it was the metaphysical aspect of the story that stayed with him — the “unseen presence” that, according to the explorer, had accompanied the three men on the last harrowing stage of their journey.

“It seemed to me often that we were four not three,” Shackleton wrote in his memoir, South. Later, in his public lectures about the expedition, he referred to this presence as his “divine companion”.

Geiger, 49, is chairman of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s expeditions committee, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the legendary New York-based Explorers Club. Five years ago, when he first opened the Shackleton memoir, the four non-fiction books on his CV included two about failed polar expeditions. But Geiger had never heard of the phenomenon that Shackleton described. “It seemed like an odd admission to appear in this heroic survival story,” he says. Wondering if other explorers might have had similar experiences, he started looking for examples.

He says the “miracle of Google” provided a cluster of leads on the phenomenon that 1975 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”.

Geiger discovered aviator Charles Lindbergh’s account of on-board “phantoms” during his 1927 attempt to make the first solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris. As the pilot struggled to stay awake during the 33-hour flight, he felt that his companions were friendly and helpful. “(They were) conversing and advising on my flight … reassuring me,” he wrote about them later.

Geiger started to think he might have another book on his hands. “There was something interesting going on. Not just a fluke hallucination. I soon reached a dozen (cases). Then 25. And in the end I had 100-plus.

“I felt it was important that people understand just how common this experience is. It’s not highly unusual and freakish. It’s an experience that people have in all sorts of environments and conditions — and that lends it a lot of power.”

Meantime, the writer had discovered that the syndrome was endemic among climbers, from Peter Hillary, to Lincoln Hall and Reinhold Messner. But discussion of it had remained secret climbers’ business — quarantined to the kind of books and magazines mostly read by other climbers.

Geiger emphasises that he is laying no claims to discovering the “third man factor”. British neurologist MacDonald Critchley, for example, had alluded to the concept in his 1955 essay The Idea of a Presence, which drew on the scientist’s 1943 study of 279 shipwrecked sailors and airmen. It included statements from a pilot and his observer who had both kept imagining a third person adrift with them in their rubber dinghy in the North Atlantic.

“But nobody in the scientific realm was pursuing (the idea),” says Geiger. “And nobody in the popular realm was attempting to pull it together and tell the story of what I think is a very important survival mechanism.”

If the “third man factor” had been confined to climbers, the writer concedes, he might have been less intrigued by it because a clear and logical explanation for the phenomenon — altitude sickness-induced brain malfunction — seemed so readily at hand. Once he started to discover more examples of “third man syndrome” — at sea-level, in the jungles of New Guinea, in space capsules — he felt he was facing a phenomenon that was both universally appealing and perplexing.

His conviction that the topic merited a book-length study was underlined when he heard examples of the “third man” appearing in urban environments as well as in the wilderness. 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.

On September 11, 2001, trader Ron DiFrancesco was the last person out of the south tower of the World Trade Centre before it collapsed. 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. DiFrancesco was a man of deep religious beliefs who explained his experience as “divine intervention”. But religious people are a minority among the many cases that Geiger presents in The Third Man Factor.

The book chronicles the history of the phenomenon, recording early references to it in classical writing, in the Bible, and describing the first modern instance in 1895, when Nova Scotia-born Joshua Slocum’s 12-metre sloop, Spray, was caught in a cataclysmic storm on the first leg of his attempt to become the first person to circumnavigate the world. Ill and delirious, Slocum was visited by a “strange guest” who took the helm for 48 hours as he lay incapacitated on the floor of his cabin.

“Third man” experiences have happened to adventurers who have voluntarily sought adventures that ended in ghastly ordeals, trapped in underwater caves or on snow-topped mountains.

But they have also touched the lives of prisoners, such as Israeli army medical officer Avi Ohri, captured by Egyptian soldiers in 1973. Kept awake for long periods, he endured beatings and mock executions. Sitting alone in his cell, blindfolded and with his arms tied behind his back, he had “visits” from “presences”. One was his wife, then in Geneva. Another was an old friend from medical school.

He spoke to them, urging each visitor to save him. But each time the presence vanished as soon as he heard the approaching steps of his interrogators. Despite this, the visits encouraged him, he said later, and gave him hope that he would soon be released.

The book also surveys the theories advanced to explain the syndrome. The author quotes Dr Griffith Pugh, the physiologist on Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1953 Everest expedition, who dismissed it as a “decay of the brain functions”.

Geiger then points out the many cases where climbers claim that their “third man” helped them compensate for altitude-related impairment. He includes the views of psychologist Woodburn Heron, who explained it as a reaction by the brain in the state of pathological boredom created in isolated and monotonous environments. He cites the “principle of multiple triggers” — the combination of extreme fatigue, pain and deprivation suffered by Antarctic explorers — as a cause.

Geiger refers to the “widow effect”, in which widows and widowers regularly sense the presence of a departed loved one. He also quotes recent research in Switzerland, in which doctors testing a patient with epilepsy found that she reported a sense of “a presence” when they stimulated a particular area of the brain. But in this case there was none of the usual “third man” sense of the presence being helpful. Instead, the feeling was “vaguely creepy”.

To Geiger, the suggestion of a neurological basis to the “third man” raises the notion that the capacity to conjure up a third man might have been a useful evolutionary adaptation. “You can imagine if primitive man had this ability to call upon help it would improve a person’s odds of survival over others who don’t have it.”

Ultimately, the author feels most comfortable describing the “third man factor” as a “coping mechanism”. “It is a way for people who are under great physical and psychological duress to cope with their situation. There is nothing more helpful to people undergoing hardship than a sense that there is another person there, helping them.”

The Third Man Factor is published by Text Publishing along with reviews of the book.

A website for the book itself can be found here which allows you to see excerpts of the book.

It can be purchased in NZ for $40.00



Radio Interview with Jacqui Dillon Of Hearing Voices Network UK

This is an interesting Interview with Jacqui Dillon of the Hearing Voices Network In Uk on Madness Radio.

“What is it like to hear voices? How do people learn to live with their voices, and are voices sometimes positive and helpful? What is the connection between voices and trauma? Jacqui Dillon, voice hearer and director of the UK Hearing Voices Network, discusses how the movement of people who hear voices is creating self-help alternatives to traditional and often abusive mental health care”

Planet fm 104.6 Tues 19th March- Interview with Richard Bentall

Listen in tomorrow Tuesday 10th March on Planet FM104.6 in Auckland. Sheldon Brown from Framework Trust will be interviewing Professor Richard Bentall, along with Adrienne from the Hearing Voices Network Aotearoa NZ.

His views on the treatment and diagnosis of the “Schizophrenias” are fascinating.

We will post a link to the radio  show, when it comes online on the Like Minds Like us website.

Radio Interview with Prof. Richard Bentall author of Madness Explained

Professor Richard Bentall from the University of Bangor in United Kingdom was in Wellington this week. He was interviewed on our National Radio.

Listen to the interview  here on Radio New Zealands website

He talks about the links with life experiences and trauma with hearing of voices and psychosis, and proposes the view that  Pscyhiatric labels for mental illness serve no purpose. Included is an interesting case study with one of his patients that hears voices.

If you like what you hear you may want to come along to our evening on March 19th on the North Shore Auckland to hear him in person. For more details contact the Hearing Voices Network Aotearoa NZ at

Say NO to Testing on Humans!

I was at a conference this week. I sat and listened to tests that had been undertaken on “schizophrenics”- the good news is it is now in hyphens. Heard about “token experiments” when people were given tokens for behaving nicely. Heard about people being given watches that bleeped at certain intervals. Saw symptoms divided up, put into percentages, and ,made into charts. I didnt see any faces there. I became increasingly more upset as it went on. Until towards the end I went outside and wept.

I wept and wept around the corner alone. No matter what I did, I could not seem to stop. I finally after 30 mins pulled myself together and returned. Only to see more analysis and statistics of studies. I left. When my cousin collected me in her car, she spoke to me of how she had been training her dog, to behave. She spoke to me of testing on animals. How she had seen videos on the internet of dogs that were put in cages and drugged so much they couldnt move, then tests were carried out on them. As a result she was no longer going to buy the dog foods that carried these tests out.

I wondered why is it still okay to carry out tests on humans?
In the plane on the way home, I realised that I wept because my heart is still open. I do not see figures and symptons, I see people that are experiencing suffering. That are are showing their raw emotions. Not symptoms, figures and data.
I was reminded of testing that used to be done on native people, thesis written on why black and Polynesian people were not the same as others. Pictures of their skulls were paraded about, to prove these theories. Which really just amounted to good reasons to treat them badly. I understood then, what my Maori ancestors suffered. In a more profound way than words could ever have portrayed.

Earlier I had spoken to a woman, who said how Maori land had been confiscated to build a Mental health institute- Tokonui. The irony was that the majority of its inhabitants were Maori people. Still suffering the same treatment, but under a different category.

I wrote this as a way to try and show how I was feeling.

I am not a frog on a slab in a biology class, awaiting dissection to see how I work.
I am a woman.
I am not a statistic- here to be added up, deleted, manipulated and categorised,
I am a living breathing being.
You wonder why those that hear voices feel they are always being watched and monitored by their governments?
It is because most of them are, in their hospital wards.
And the rest of us? We can feel their pain.
I am not someone to be looked at from a distance,
Come beside me and hold my hand.
I do not behave the way you would like.
Should I apologise that my suffering has manifested in a way that you can clearly see
Without me speaking the words to explain it.
Please do not try to explain my pain and suffering.
Please do not drug me, restrain me, and test me like a lab animal.
I know that because people care many companies have stopped animal testing.
So why haven’t you stopped testing on me?
I am not an animal,
I am you dressed in another body, clothed in the events of my life,
My Clothes are not as clean and as tidy as yours.
I cannot see my story in your charts.
6 week tests are the proof that the drugs work.
Their promotional videos say so.
So why is it 20 years later when people are still unwell,
It is they who are made to feel a failure not the drugs?
Say no to human testing, and become a human.
I am not Mad,
I am angry.
Angry that you have forgotten who I am.
I am you.
When will you start treating me like you?


I did  enjoy listening to the presentation by Wiremu Nia Nia and Egan. They told stories of Maori people who were treated as insane,  whose experiences when put into a cultural context were understood, explained and healed. In New Zealand I am pleased to say that there is a greater understanding of the cultural diversity that is present. Health Boards, are at last acknowledging Maori concepts and understandings.

 I am hopeful that a new path is being laid for those that hear voices to walk. The Hearing Voices Network in Aotearoa NZ, and other countries around the world are making people aware  of how changes need to be made. How we are all the same in a different way.

Quote of the Week- Fighting the Good fight

Quote of the Week

Fighting the Good Fight

I believe that any individual who has spiritually awakened in our time, to the degree that he or she finds a higher and deeper motive for living, is going to be driven to fight the good fight in one way or another. Whether it is through engaging with the struggle to evolve consciousness or fighting to save our world from climate change or nuclear war, the spiritual impulse cannot be separated from the moral compulsion to make the world a better place. And in order to fight the good fight, we have to engage, we have to get into the ring, not just stand outside it and be philosophers.

It takes guts and integrity of motive to fight the good fight. It takes a passionate interest in life itself. It’s easy to stand on the sidelines, shaking your head and commenting on how tragic things are. But if you really care, you are going to be in the ring, trying to make the world a better place. And only from that position will your words and your thoughts and your insights have weight. When you live an engaged life, your sense of self gains depth and power and authority, and your philosophy is no longer abstract. You become a person who can really make a difference, because you are actively participating, you are digging deep, and you are pushing up against the edge of your own potential.

Andrew Cohen