From polar explorers in peril to natural disaster survivors who barely made it out, for thousands of years many people have credited their survival to an external, encouraging presence.
Charles Lindbergh, the aviator most known for his nonstop transatlantic solo flight in 1927, admitted that he struggled to stay awake after around 20 hours of flight.
He said that what kept him going were vague, shapeless presences that encouraged him and helped him figure out navigational issues.
These forms stayed with him all the way up until he reached safety of the coast of Ireland, from there the majority of the journey was made as Paris was not far away.
Frank Smyth, in 1933, described in his journal how the only thing that encouraged him to continue his climb on Mount Everest was the strong sense of a presence there that eliminated all feelings of loneliness and isolation.
The presence was so tangible to him that he even broke his food in half and turned to offer it to the invisible third man.
More recently, On September 11th, 2001, trapped in a smoky stairwell of the South Tower, a man named Ron DiFrancesco was lying on the floor as those around him fell unconscious, dizzy and struggling to breathe.
But before he could faint a voice yelled at him to get up, and he felt a physical presence urge him to his feet to continue down the stairs.
At one point, the presence pushed him to run through fire to find escape. He made it out of the building and into the plaza mere moments before the tower collapsed, killing everyone inside.
DiFrancesco was one of only four people who had been above the 81st floor to make it out alive.
As a deeply religious man, he believes that the helpful presence that saved him– a presence that can’t be explained by another person– was an act of God’s intervention.
Somebody lifted me up. I don’t think somebody grabbed my hand, but I was definitely led
The protective, encouraging presence many people experience during dangerous or traumatic events is now known as the third man factor (named after its mention in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”), and explanations for its prevalence among adventurers and survivors of traumatic ordeals have long been debated.
Many modern survivors chalk it up to their religion, with Christians such as DiFrancesco claiming that God or Jesus guided them to safety and many other people claiming that they were accompanied by guardian angels or spirits.
Some people even argue that the force is their dead spouse, friend or other family member. Others tend to think that their third man was an otherworldly being.
Peter Hillary, the son of famous New Zealander Edmund Hillary, also encountered a third man like presence in 1998 whilst retracing Scott’s Antarctic journey.
In this case it took the form of his late mother.
It was like she’d come out there to keep me company
Mainstream science has other ideas. Some psychologists today believe that the third man factor is a result of bicameralism, which suggests that our cognitive mind is divided into two parts: a ‘speaking’ part, and a ‘listening’ part.
One part gives the command, and the other part obeys. The idea is that this dynamic gets disrupted in times of extreme stress, with the logical part of the brain getting knocked off-kilter.
This allows the creative brain, the imagination, to take over, and we perceive an external presence instead of our own thoughts.
Another idea suggests that the whole thing is a coping mechanism caused by the adrenaline surge we experience in life-threatening situations.
While mainstream science tries to boil it down to chemicals and neurotransmitters, many insist that the third man is something spiritual.
This would be consistent with thousands of years of stories– cultures across the globe have told stories of protective spirits or gods, and each time, these presences are positive, encouraging forces that pull terrified people through dangerous situations.
In many cultures, the idea of a guardian angel or spirit is accepted as absolute truth. The universal nature of the idea suggests to many that there is an external force involved in all of these cases.
After all, why else would otherwise normal, healthy people suddenly experience such vivid hallucinations or perceptual distortions?
When looking at the big picture it is important to weigh up both the scientific side, along with the spiritual aspect.
This has happened far to many times to be merely coincidence. It is clear that something beyond what we know about mankind happens in times of extreme duress.
Whatever the cause, the elusive third man has been the savior of countless people since the dawn of time.
For each person who survives extreme circumstances, whether they’re polar explorers or 9/11 tragedy survivors, the third man factor is a force to whom they will be forever grateful.
What do you think about the third man factor? Angel or adrenaline rush?