The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Skepticality: The Official Podcast of Skeptic Magazine 100th Episode

Skepticality 100th Episode!

This week, the original, pioneering skeptical podcast celebrates its 100th episode! The hosts of Skepticality take a lighthearted look back at past shows, reveal thoughts about future installments, and share well-wishes from their friends in the skeptical community — including Dr. Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer), George Hrab (Geologic Podcast), and Brian Dunning (Skeptoid).

SUBSCRIBE to Skepticality
within iTunes

STREAM Episode #100
(23MB MP3)

SUBSCRIBE to the Skeptic RSS feed

Understanding the
Economic Meltdown

with Dr. Michael Shermer

Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 1pm
Van Dyke Hall
Long Beach Medical Center
(This is not a Skeptics Society event)

Join Dr. Michael Shermer for this lecture on evolutionary economics, behavioral economics, and neuroeconomics to understanding the current economic crisis, why it happened, and what we can do about it. Drawing on research from neuroeconomics, Shermer explores what brain scans reveal about how trust is established in business. Utilizing experiments in behavioral economics, Shermer shows why people hang on to losing stocks and failing companies, why business negotiations often disintegrate into emotional tit-for-tat disputes, and what societal conditions are necessary for a stable economy. Employing research from complexity theory, Shermer shows how evolution and economics are both examples of a larger phenomenon of complex adaptive systems that emerge from bottom-up processes and not top-down design. Finally, Shermer considers the consequences of globalization and what will happen if nations allow free trade across their borders.

In addition, Dr. Shermer’s colleague, Jay Stuart Snelson, will be lecturing on “Can Science Save us from Self-Extinction,” and together the afternoon seminar runs from 1:00 to 5:00 pm. The event is hosted by Charles and Kimberly Holloway and the Mapping Freedom Project (this is not a Skeptics Society event). The cost is $45 for the entire afternoon seminar.

For reservations call 760-233-2071

In this week’s eSkeptic James Allan Cheyne reviews The Third Man Factor: The Secret of Survival in Extreme Environments, by John Geiger (Penguin, 2009, ISBN 978-0-14-301751-6)

Dr. James Allan Cheyne has worked in a variety of areas in psychology and cognitive neuroscience. His current interests include the phenomenology and neuropsychology of sustained attention, the experience of agency (willed action), hallucinations, and religious and other anomalous experiences and beliefs. His published research has appeared in a variety of peer-reviewed journals, including Consciousness and Cognition, Cognition, Cognitive Development, Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, Cortex, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Journal of Sleep Research, and Neuropsychologia. He formally retired from the University of Waterloo in 2005, where he served as Chair of the Department of Psychology, but continues to engage in research, writing, and occasional bear tracking.

Third Man Factor (detail of cover)

detail of book cover

Sensed Presences in Extreme Contexts

by James Allan Cheyne

John Geiger’s book is a highly readable compendium of anecdotes about the remarkably common experience of feeling the presence of a companion for whom there is no objective evidence. The companion is seldom seen but strongly sensed and hence is often referred to as a “sensed presence.” The presence is usually taken to be a stranger, but may sometimes be a friend or mentor, a favorite aunt, a fellow adventurer, sometimes recently deceased, and usually providing moral support, guidance, or protection and sometimes described metaphorically, or literally, as a “guardian angel.” Approximately three-quarters of the companionate presences appeared in the midst of harrowing misadventures of mountaineers, polar explorers, and sailors. Thus, Geiger’s book is about one version of the sensed presence experience, the version that occurs in what Peter Suedfeld has called EUEs; “extreme and unusual environments.” The anecdotes reported by Geiger are nearly always first-person accounts of the appearance of mysterious, often neutral, sometimes friendly, and rarely threatening, presences encountered during life-and-death struggles for survival. Indeed, the subtitle of the book implies what is explicitly claimed in the book itself; namely, that the companion is a secret life-saver of either divine or biological provenance. Little evidence is provided, however, that the companion experience, however comforting, is more than a modest aid to survival, let alone the secret to survival.

It should also be noted that there is nothing special about the number three of the title. The title could have just as justifiably called The Fourth Man, The Second Man, or, in at least one case, The Seventh Person. An early version appears to have been The Extra Man. Geiger appears to have based his title on the experience of Ernest Shackleton and his two companions during their trek across South Georgia; or to be more precise, on T. S. Eliot’s reference to the event, immortalized in “The Waste Land,” with its famous question: “Who is the third who always walks beside you?” Either through poetic license or misremembering Eliot reduced Shackleton’s party from three to two: “When I count, there are only you and I together.” Elliot’s notes suggest he was rather vague about his recollection of “the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which but I think one of Shackleton’s)”. In the original account of Shackleton, the companion was actually a fourth: “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three” (p. 37).

Third Man Factor (cover)

One of the most striking features of the experience of the companion is its elementary and minimalist properties and the consistency of these across individuals and circumstances. All of the germane information about each and every encounter in the text could likely be described in 10–20 type-written pages, and comprehensively summarized in one. The bulk of the approximately 250 pages of text consists of background and context-setting events leading up to the experience itself. The experiences themselves do become very familiar and repetitive, though interesting variants do crop up from time to time. Although the descriptions of the events leading up to the experiences sometimes go on a bit too long for my liking it must be said that they are, by and large, gripping tales well told, and, overall, mostly do provide relevant and informative context for the companion experiences. I expect most people will find this an engaging read.

Though passing reference is made to the experiences of monks and saints, biblical tales, and the Christian notion of guardian angels, most of the anecdotes are modern, spanning a little over 100 years. Geiger also provides, towards the end of the book, brief overviews of various psychological and neuroscientific theories of presence experiences. Geiger highlights critical features of the experience as well as of their precipitating conditions as he goes along. With regard to the latter, he mentions the usual suspects: monotony, darkness, barren landscapes, isolation, cold, injury, dehydration, hunger, fatigue, and fear; all often extreme, persistent, and in combination and, in the case of mountaineers, compounded by lack of adequate levels of oxygen. The accounts also frequently involve death and injury of real companions. The large majority of the anecdotes come from the experiences of mountaineers, likely because climbers have the largest proportion of truly harrowing challenges and are often exposed to almost all of the precipitating conditions for the companion experiences.

The vivid and compelling nature of the companion experiences, despite their elemental simplicity, likely cannot be overstated. Such experiences are almost invariably described as utterly compelling; far too vivid and real to be a mere hallucination; which is usually to imply that it defies naturalistic explanation. Hallucinations do not, however, constitute the only, or even most appropriate, naturalistic explanation available. Strictly speaking, the sensed presence does not fit the definition of a hallucination at all, because, by definition, hallucinations involve sensory experiences. Rather, the sensed presence of the unseen companion is a delusion; that is, a compelling feeling that something is the case in the absence of evidence. Hallucinations may sometimes accompany delusions. There may be sounds, voices and visions, even physical contact, though these are all comparatively rare. None are intrinsic to the sensed presence itself, which, by definition, is devoid of sensory experience. As William Laird McKinley stated of his Arctic experiences, there is “nothing of the senses in it at all, only an awareness” (p. 53). Yet, the same author can say of this insensible presence that “it filled me with an exultation beyond all earthly feeling” generating a feeling of the “absolute certainly of the existence of God” (p. 54). Yet, though the presence is not necessarily taken to be supernatural, there is often a dual consciousness associated with the presence in which a hard-nosed realist is simultaneously aware that the presence is not real in the normal sense of the term, yet utterly compelling; so compelling, and persistent, that food may be offered to the presence in a casual and automatic manner.

Geiger notes that hallucinations, though not often part of the presence experience itself, do sometimes accompany the sensed presence. They tend to be vague and misty apparitions or commanding voices. Rob Taylor, injured during his ascent of the Breach Wall of Kilimanjaro, reported seeing a figure and being able to “make out his form, yet never can I distinguish exact features.” The form was a human form without the clothing of a climber but rather “like a dancer in a leotard” (p. 178). Charles Lindbergh encountered multiple presences on his famous trans-Atlantic flight. He described “vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving” in the cockpit. Yet despite his ability to describe the presences, however minimally, they actually seemed to have been out of sight, as he also says: “without turning my head, I can see them as clearly as though in my normal field of vision” (p. 85). He also wrote that the presences had “voices that spoke with authority and clearness.” Yet he admitted “I can’t remember a single word they said” (p. 87).

Almost always, there is a vague feeling that the presence is there to help in some unspecified way or, in the case of temporarily incapacitated sailors, like the solo sailor Joshua Slocum, simply trusted to man their craft. Or it may simply be a feeling that a navigational decision was made on the implicit advice of the presence. More often, the companions offer wordless advice, which is typically highly nonspecific, or provides information and advice of the sort that the individual would already know and believe…or hope. The advice is typically, “Don’t fall asleep,” “Keep moving,” and “You are going to make it.” That is, sensible commonplace advice that is more reassuring than informative. Nonetheless, this sense of reassurance is often credited by the individuals for their survival. This feeling is essentially the basis for the claim that the presence is the secret to survival in extreme conditions. As Geiger acknowledges, however, we obviously have limited access to negative cases, the stories of the presences of the non-survivors in recovered diaries are obviously rare, though such cases do exist. Perhaps as many non-survivors as survivors received support and encouragement from their presences. Alternatively, perhaps the companions of non-survivors gave bad advice. Moreover, we do not have information about how many survivors never experienced the companionate sensed presence. We have essentially one cell of the four-fold table necessary to draw the functional conclusion.

One especially interesting and harrowing anecdote of extremity is recounted by climber Joe Simpson in his book Touching the Void, about his summiting of Siula Grande (not Huascarán as indicated in Geiger’s book), and the aftermath of an accident during descent. This is perhaps the most compelling evidence for a survival function of a hallucination, but ironically, not actually involving a presence. Simpson’s recurring hallucination was simply a voice in his head, but a compelling and very authoritative one:

The voice was clean and sharp and commanding. It was always right, and I listened to it when it spoke and acted on its decisions. The other mind rambled out a disconnected series of images, and memories and hopes, which I attended to in a daydream state as I set about obeying the orders of the voice.

Not surprisingly, this description leads Geiger to invoke, as Peter Suedfeld had done previously, Julian Jaynes’s notion of the bicameral mind. Indeed the quotation above is essentially a definition of a bicameral mind at work. Interestingly, Jaynes’s perennially controversial theory, of all those discussed by Geiger, is really the only one explicitly directed at explaining the version of the sensed presence discussed in this book. What Simpson’s account reminded me of, however, was a more current and mainstream theory involving a distinction between two levels of processing always active in human cognition. They go by different names, but the cognitive process that corresponds to Simpson’s rational and authoritative voice is commonly referred to as an “executive” or “control” process. Another level of processing, which corresponds to Simpson’s jumble of images, memories, and emotions, appears to reflect what are referred to as “automatic” processes, which operate according in an associative and appropriately named, “pandemonium mode,” in which different impulses vie for attention and execution. There has been little written about the nature of the phenomenological component to these two modes, though a little self-reflection will, I think, uncover a subtle version of Simpson’s experience in our own mundane experiences. In extreme situations the phenomenology of the two processing streams may become enhanced, perhaps through a general emergency reaction of the brain of the sort discussed by Geiger. One can readily see how the sort of experience might lead people who have experienced extreme circumstances to interpret the voice as that of a guardian angel—or a god à la Julian Jaynes. Yet Joe Simpson was a self-declared atheist before his Siula Grande experience and remained one afterward and attributes the voice to a “sixth sense” buried deep in our evolutionary past, never personifying it but consistently referring to it merely as “the voice” or “it.”

Curiously, Geiger fails to mention that Simpson did report sensing the presence of companions during a period of absence of the voice toward the end of his ordeal. He felt that he was being followed closely by two companions, who “hung back out of sight,” and whom he imagined to be other members of the expedition, Simon and Richard, who were actually at the camp ahead of him. He reported that he was happy at the thought of “company and help if I needed it.” In contrast to the positive guidance of the voice, however, the presences appear to have been merely comforting.

I have long been fascinated by how the most subtle feelings of presence can convince a McKinley of the absolute certainty of God’s existence and the much more dramatic experiences of a Joe Simpson elicited no spiritual gloss at all. Perhaps most instructive is the fact that, despite his condition of serious injury, fatigue, hypothermia, starvation, and dehydration (at the end of his ordeal he weighed 90 pounds), Simpson, upon first hearing “the voice” immediately and systematically considers alternative hypotheses. Did he leave on his Walkman? Were the sounds the result of his balaclava rubbing on his ears? Geiger concludes that ancient people, lacking Walkman-type hypotheses, fell back on religious hypotheses. Yet Geiger need not have gone back to ancient peoples. His own book is filled with numerous examples of moderns invoking religious or mystical interpretations. It does seem reasonable, nonetheless, to suppose that moderns have a greater range of possible interpretations and this must, one would suppose, make a difference in the way experiences are perceived. Yet this is clearly not the only, or even the main, story.

Geiger discusses but does not focus particularly on the supernatural, though, judging from the reviews beginning to appear on the web, these sorts of phenomena are magnets for those invested in the occult and spiritual. Geiger cites Michael Murphy as claiming that many of these experiences “defy easy explanation,” by which he means naturalistic scientific explanations. Geiger also briefly falls into this casual sophistry describing the physiologist Pugh’s explanations as dismissive. Why commentators so often consider scientific explanations “easy” or “dismissive” has never been clear to me; especially when I then read of Murphy claiming that these experiences are evidence that “humans can indeed perceive disembodied entities” (p. 78). Now that strikes me as an easy explanation.

One set of naturalistic theories Geiger reviews favorably are those that suggest that the sensed presence is a biological mechanism for coping with loneliness in only children in the form of “imaginary companions,” and for adults alone under threatening and fearsome conditions. On this view, the sensed presence provides an imaginary companion to relieve anxiety. One can see how this could be functional—avoiding despair and giving up—but it does raise another question. If it is biological—which would entail affecting the relative availability of neurotransmitters and somatic hormones—why does it need a phenomenological or experiential component? Why are brain mechanisms not arranged to just make us feel less threatened and more optimistic without the spooky experience to confuse us? I realize that this is a rather generic argument regarding consciousness, but it all seems a rather Rube Goldberg contraption to have evolved just to make us feel comfortable in extreme environments.

Perhaps the companion experience is not functional at all, in itself, but rather is an anomalous dissociation that provides evidence of a deeper, more general, function on which its own functionality, if any, is parasitic. Perhaps, for example, the feeling of presence is simply a misfiring of normally functional sensations associated with real companions.

Having done some trekking and climbing in the Himalayas and the Andes, I am somewhat familiar with the experience of spending long hours moving in single file. One has a constant sense of companions ahead and behind, as well as a sense of dependency on them. There is the constant reminder of the rope in the downhill hand binding one to the other. Frank Smythe, for example, specifically notes that it “seemed that I was tied to my ‘companion’ by a rope” (p. 48). Though Smyth was alone, if he had had a companion they would have been tied together. The rope is truly a lifeline. When a comrade falls, the others dig in with ice axes and crampons and brace themselves to break the fall of the other. Thus, there is both a strong expectancy of the others to be constantly at a regular distance, maintaining appropriate tension on the rope, and to be available for assistance. One also finds oneself periodically looking over one’s shoulder to check on the others; even though one knows and feels that they are there without looking. As noted, in the large majority of cases, the presence is just out of sight, often a couple of meters behind. Although the presence is described as guiding and encouraging, it is usually following behind rather than leading.

The sense of the presence of others is pervasive and continuous when one is with others; but we rarely remark on it because, after all, there really are others present and this is the normal feeling when they are there. We feel it explicitly when in intense relationships and acutely when in love; but mostly it is just the reassuring background feeling of companionship. Our feeling corresponds with recent memory and with current sensory experience. When this feeling becomes disconnected from what we know from recent memory and current experience, however, we may then have the experience of the sensed presence. If so, then the presence experience parallels the “feeling of knowing” something as a separate experience from the actual knowing of it that we have all experienced as the tip-of-the-tongue experience. In both cases, background becomes foreground.

This is not to dismiss or trivialize either experience, but to attempt to turn a mystery into a potentially solvable problem; namely, how does this normal feeling of being with others become dissociated from what we know from memory and current sensory experience? This, in turns, suggests the possibility that there is a separate set of cognitive and neural events constituting the feeling of presence, over and above those that register the sensory experiences generated by the actual presence of others. Perhaps this feeling reflects a mode or psychological context of “being with others,” bringing our social selves into prominence and acting appropriately and refraining from acting inappropriately in the presence of others. Finally, in extreme situations the need for companions activates the feeling of presence. This would certainly be comforting in extreme and unusual environments and, to that extent, could be construed as incidentally functional.

The Third Man Factor is an engaging book, full of adventure, especially of mountaineering (the cover appropriately portrays two figures walking along a ridge high above the clouds). Over 40 percent of all cases cited involve experiences in mountains. Regardless of differing titles, many chapters have a feeling of familiarity. One chapter, entitled “The Widow Effect,” is 37 pages long but has slightly less than five pages devoted to the sensed presence experiences of widows (and a widower). The rest of the chapter is devoted mainly to more mountaineering adventures. Nonetheless, I do confess that I find the mountain climbing stories to be much more gripping than stories about grieving widows. From my perspective, Geiger has performed a most valuable service by pulling all of these accounts together in single volume providing a good reference source for modern examples of the companion version of sensed presence phenomena. I expect I will refer back to this book many times in the future.

  • Suedfeld, P. & Mocellin, J. S. P. 1987. “The Sensed Presence in Unusual Environments.” Environment and Psychology, 19, 33–52.
  • Suedfeld, P. & Geiger, J. 2008. “The Sensed Presence as a Coping Resource in Extreme Environments.” In J. H. Ellens (Ed.) Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Vol. 3. London: Praeger.
  • Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems: 1909–1962, Notes on “The Waste Land — What the Thunder Said.”
  • Op. Cit. Suedfeld & Mocellin. website banner

Free to Try: Education, Computers & Markets

This week on SkepticBlog, Shermer makes an analogy between market solutions to transportation, computers and education and asks why we can’t we apply the same solutions that worked for computers to education and transportation.

READ the post >

While you’re there be sure to read the blog posts of the other Skepticbloggers: Brian Dunning, Kirsten Sanford, Mark Edward, Phil Plait, Ryan Johnson, Steven Novella, and Yau-Man Chan.

Skeptic Magazine App on iPhone


Whether at home or on the go, the SKEPTIC App is the easiest way to read your favorite articles. Within the app, users can purchase the current issue and back issues. Download the app today and get a 30-day free trial subscription.

Download the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, available on the App Store
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for Android, available on Google Play
SKEPTIC • 3938 State St., Suite 101, Santa Barbara, CA, 93105-3114 • 1-805-576-9396 • Copyright © 1992–2024. All rights reserved • Privacy Policy