Between 1914 and 1917, Sir Ernest Shackleton embarked on a wild plot to cross the entire Antarctic, an ill-fated journey that would ultimately fail but be remembered as one of the greatest feats of endurance in human history. When the Endurance, the ship carrying Shackleton’s party, became stuck in ice in 1915, the group of sailors made an arduous journey across inhospitable land to reach Elephant Island and then eventually South Georgia, where the ill-equipped men crossed mountains and glaciers to find safety.
Writing about his experiences, Shackleton made a remarkable admission:
"...during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three"
Thanks to this account, more survivors have since come forward to explain a bizarre phenomenon known as Third Man syndrome, an unexplainable “apparition” that appears only in the worst circumstances.
Third Man syndrome
Perhaps one of the strangest phenomena of human survival is Third Man syndrome. Shackleton first described it, in which a strange companion appeared to him during the tough legs of his journey, but soon more and more people came forward to echo his experience. Mountain explorers, shipwreck survivors, and polar explorers have all claimed to have either seen a person or heard a voice, often providing helpful information on how they should escape their situation.
One of those people was British explorer Frank Smythe, who almost became the first person to summit Mount Everest in 1933. Along with his climbing party, Smythe made the intense journey towards the summit in poor conditions, but his party soon turned back after terrible weather and lack of oxygen made the summit an impossible task. Smythe continued, determined to complete the summit, but narrowly missed it by 304 meters (1,000 feet). While Smythe was completely alone, that isn’t how he remembered it.
"All the time that I was climbing alone, I had a strong feeling that I was accompanied by a second person. The feeling was so strong that it completely eliminated all loneliness I might otherwise have felt,” he recounted in his diary after the attempt.
At one point, Smythe was so convinced of his imaginary guide that he tried to share some Kendal mint cake with it, but upon turning around, realized there was no one there with him.
The “Third Man” became popularized in a famous book by John Geiger called The Third Man Factor, which cultivates a huge array of examples of the phenomenon.
So, what is the Third Man Factor? No one really knows, and almost no scientific explanations have been put forward. It is likely a hallucination in response to extreme stress, but the idea that it puts forward reasonable information in times of extreme pressure suggests it is some sort of survival resource.
It has even been utilized in therapy with the understanding it could be a coping mechanism, in attempts to help people with trauma. It is also used to support the bicameral mentality hypothesis, which states that the brain is made of two sections: one that speaks, and the other listens.
Such a response is so rare and under such catastrophic scenarios that it will likely never be fully studied; but the idea that, in times of need, a portion of our brain conjures a friend to help is truly remarkable, and strangely comforting.