Book review: John Geiger's The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible

Have you ever wondered where the archetype of a “guardian angel”, “vision guide”, “helper”, or “Third Man” comes from? Why, in extreme survival situations, is it common for people to report the experience of a “presence” assisting them? John Geiger’s book The Third Man Factor is a comprehensive compilation of reports from mountaineers, explorers, sailors, adventurers, divers, and other persons faced with death in extreme survival situations who all report strangely similar accounts of a “presence” helping, comforting, motivating, or advising them, a phenomenon often dubbed the “Third Man Factor” from Ernest Shackleton’s famous report that during his harrowing travels in polar regions “it seemed to me often that we were four not three”. It’s call the “Third Man” factor not the “Fourth Man” factor because T.S. Eliot thought a trio was more poetic when he channel’s Shackleton’s story:

Who is the third who walks always besides you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I looked 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 woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?

The Waste Land

The Third Man Factor is one of the most riveting books I have ever read. This is not only because of the nature of the extreme survival tales but because the Third Man factor is one of the most interesting psychological phenomena ever recorded. Allow me to quote some first-hand descriptions of the Third Man factor:

“It was something I couldn’t see but it was a physical presence. It told me what to do. The only decision I had made at that point in time was to lie down next to Rick and to fall asleep and to accept death. That’s the only decision I made. All decisions made subsequent to that were made by the presence. I was merely taking instructions…I understood what it wanted me to do. It wanted me to live.”

“It seemed to me that this ‘presence’ was a strong, helpful and friendly one, and it was not until Camp VI was sighted that the link connecting me, as it seemed at the time to the beyond, was snapped.”

“Then all at once I became aware of something new and strange, a consciousness of a ‘presence’, a feeling that I was not alone.”

“I could feel his invisible presence sitting there comfortingly beside me in that lonely little raft lost so hopelessly in the vast Atlantic.”

“Two hours later, he was awoken with a start by a stern voice: ‘Get up. It’s your turn at the helm.'”

“I didn’t pray, and I’m not a religious man usually, but for the whole voyage I’d had the strange feeling that someone else was with me, watching over me, and keeping me safe from harm.”

“…a strange sensation as if someone were in the boat with me. How can I explain it –not a mystical experience, just a calm feeling of assurance that someone was there helping and sharing tasks. Looking back, I do not feel that my mind became deranged — I was just quite certain that I was not alone.”

“It was then that he became acutely aware of a presence with him. Venables felt that it was an older person: ‘I never identified him, but this alter ego was to accompany me on and off for the rest of that day, sometimes comforting me and advising me, sometimes seeking my support.”

“I don’t often talk about my companion watcher these days…After the Breach when I first spoke of him to people, they reacted quite predictably: “What an imagination!”…At first I persisted in my stand: ‘He was real. There in the flesh or at least in some concrete form I could see.’ Now I know this and say this to you: He was there and as real as you or I.”

“I’ve never believed in apparitions, but how can I explain the forms I carried with me through so many hours of this day? Transparent forms in human outline – voices that spoke with authority and clearness.”

Clearly this is a very real psychological phenomena. I see no reason to believe that these reports are somehow getting the phenomenology wrong. What interests me is how the Third Man factor is closely intertwined with religious history. For ages, religious persons have reported experiences of “guardian angels” assisting them or comforting them. Almost all primitive cultures believe in various spirits or ephemeral beings, and the concept of seeking out such beings on “vision quests” is quite familiar. I think atheists and skeptics can learn a lot about the epistemology of religious belief from understanding the Third Man factor. Many atheists assume that believers are irrational in using “mere subjective experience” to argue for the rationality of their belief in supernatural phenomena. Arguably, it is less rational in today’s modern scientific society with ample brain-based explanations, but to understand the persistence and appeal of religion in modern times we have to understand its origins in prescientific eras. I see no reason to think that the Third Man factor is a modern phenomena. Likely it has a hardwired biological underpinning that would have been present in humans long before we knew anything about how the brain works. Consider this telling quote from the book:

“Once again I became aware of what I can only describe as a Presence, which filled me with an exaltation beyond all earthly feeling. As it passed, I walked back to the ship, I felt wholly convinced that no agnostic, no skeptic, no atheist, no humanist, no doubter, would ever take from me the certainty of the existence of God.”

How can you argue against that? You can’t really. Now imagine the epistemic situation prior to the invention of brain science. If you experienced a Third Man, then you would be quite rational in explaining that experience in terms of your local cultural narrative whether Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or animism. For Christians, they would have explained it in terms of the Biblical concept of an angel. For some Christians, the Third Man could also take the form of Jesus or God himself rather than just a “lower” entity like an angel (or demon). From an epistemological perspective, the Third Man factor is extremely interesting. It explains why many believers are “certain” that God exists and that nothing could ever change their minds: they have experienced the Third Man. I have no doubt the Third Man factor is also at play in alien abduction experiences.

Of course, there is a perfectly rational explanation for such phenomena if you accept the findings of modern neuroscience and philosophical naturalism. As Geiger discusses several times, one of the most promising theories to explain the Third Man is Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism. On the basis of multiple sources of evidence, Jaynes argues that at the dawn of history, humans had a much lower stress threshold to trigger hallucinations. Moreover, he argues (convincingly, imo) that such hallucinations could have had an adaptive function reinforced by natural selection. Such “hallucinatory control” is a type of decision making that manifests psychologically in the form of hallucinations, particularly of authoritative voices giving commands. Jaynes argues that command hallucinations allow for a novel form of self-stimulation and self-regulation (I can’t prove it, but I suspect this is where Dennett got his own ideas about self-stimulation from in Consciousness Explained, albeit stripped of the hallucination aspect). Such self-stimulations replaced the promptings by others (e.g. leaders) that would have triggered stereotyped behavioral patterns. By prompting oneself internally, humans would have been able to engage in more complex, “time-delayed” behaviors in the absence of verbal promptings by others. As Jaynes says,

Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narratizethe situation and so hold his analog “ I ” in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was capable of, or, as seems more likely, by a repeated ‘ internal ’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do. (Jaynes, 1976, p. 134)

This might sound implausible, but consider the jury-rigging or “klugeish” nature of evolutionary tinkering. Evolution could have taken a preexisting language system and redeployed it to be used to issue commands, not externally with a voice, but internally to oneself. Such “promptings” could act as a jury-rigged memory buffer system. With such machinery in place, humans would have been able to achieve feats of complex culture building. Religious narratives would have co-evolved along with the expansion of this self-stimulation system, giving birth to modern religious concepts.

We already have good “proximal” explanations of the Third Man in terms of brain science. But what we lacked, and what Jaynes offers, is an “ultimate” explanation of the Third Man, one that gives an evolutionary story in adaptationist language. Whether or not Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism is fully corroborated in all its minute details (to the extent that it can given its historical hypotheses), I believe Geiger’s brilliant and compelling book is just another piece of evidence in support of Jaynesian ideas. On the theory of bicameralism, the Third Man is a vestigial remnant of a preexisting system of behavioral self-stimulation that used internally generated hallucinations as a way to transfer linguistic information to other, “encapsulated” areas of the brain.

If you are interested, Geiger has setup an online forum for people across the world to share stories of their own Third Man experience. Check it out:


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Filed under Consciousness, Psychology

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