The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


Ben Alderson-Day — Presence: The Strange Science and True Stories of the Unseen Other

Presence: The Strange Science and True Stories of the Unseen Other (book cover)

Ben Alderson-Day is an Associate Professor in Psychology and a Fellow of the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing at Durham University. A specialist in atypical cognition and mental health, his work spans cognitive neuroscience, psychiatry, philosophy, and child development. His new book is Presence: The Strange Science and True Stories of the Unseen Other.

About the Book

A psychologist’s journey to understand one of the most unusual experiences known to humankind: the universal, disturbing feeling that someone or something is there when we are alone. These experiences of sensing a Presence when no one else is there have been given many names—the Third Man, guardian angels, shadow figures, “social” hallucinations—and they have inspired, unsettled, and confounded in equal measure.

While the contexts in which they occur are diverse, they are united by a distinct and uncanny feeling of visitation by another. But what does this feeling mean, and where does it come from? When and why do presences emerge? And how can we even begin to understand a phenomenon that can be transformative for those who experience it, and yet so hard to put into words?

The answers to these questions lie in this tour-de-force through contemporary psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, and philosophy. Presence follows Ben Alderson-Day’s attempts—as a psychologist and a researcher—to understand how this experience is possible. What is a voice when it isn’t heard, and how otherwise do we know or feel that someone is in our presence? Is it a hallucination connected to psychosis, a change in the working of the brain, or something else?

The journey to understand takes us to meet explorers, mediums, and robots, and step through real, imagined, and virtual worlds. Presence is the story of who we carry with us, at all times, as parts of ourselves.

Show Notes

Heidi Love’s article on Sleep Paralysis published in Skeptic, recounting her personal experiences of the phenomenon:

I wake up with a start, feel that I’m paralyzed, feel this sort of tingly vibrating energy coursing through my body. I feel like I’m sort of…sinking…or falling backwards…like down into a giant bowl of warm tingly oatmeal. Rhythmic sensations of vibrations/electricity all over my skin and throughout my entire body. This comes also with a sound, a roar, a rush. The sound stays. I feel fear. I try to move, but can’t. It’s hard to breath, it’s hard to lift my chest, or to fill my lungs with air.

I can open my eyes just a slit so I can see everything in my room, and notice a huge bulking figure in the doorway coming toward me. It is a dark silhouette of something that kind of looks like a giant broad-shouldered ape. It is a monster or a demon of some sort. I can’t see a face—just an outline filled in with total darkness against the bright white light of my room and the doorway. It is totally aware of me and wants to do me harm. It is coming toward me and I am paralyzed and totally terrified. Struggling for breath, I panic and strain hard, directing all of my energy to try to move just one little finger…and finally, I do. I move a finger and the spell is broken. I “wake up” all the way. I feel groggy and drugged and hot. I am alone in my bedroom.

Just like people in the Middle Ages reported being sexually harassed in their beds by demons, or people today who claim to have been sexually molested by aliens, my sleep paralysis experiences have been both terrifying and sexual in nature. For example:

It is daylight, I am alone in the house and again, while there is fear, there is also intense sexual arousal. The entity in the room this time is, well…it’s performing oral sex on me and it’s doing a pretty damn good job. It’s sort of human, but sort of not human. It’s definitely kind of scary and threatening and demonic, but the sensation of it between my legs is totally real and feels good. I feel wide awake, yet paralyzed, I can see the room and I can see this dark strange face between my legs and I can feel everything that it’s doing to me. Despite my arousal, I still struggle to break the paralysis and finally do by moving a finger. I “wake up” in a state of intense sexual arousal.

From Michael Shermer’s 2011 book The Believing Brain

The descriptive phrase “third man” comes from T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land:

Who is the third who always walks beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together. But when I look ahead up the white road There is always another one walking beside you Gliding, wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded.

In his footnotes to this verse Eliot explained that they “were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s): it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.” In fact, in Shackleton’s account it was a fourth man who accompanied the remaining three in the party: “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.” No matter, whether it is a third-man, fourth-man, angel, alien, or extra-man, it is the sensed presence that interests us here because this is yet another example of the brain’s capacity for agenticity, so I shall refer to such companions as sensed presences and the process as the sensed-presence effect.

In his book, The Third Man Factor, John Geiger lists the conditions that are associated with the generation of a sensed presence: monotony, darkness, barren landscapes, isolation, cold, injury, dehydration, hunger, fatigue, and fear.

To this list we can add sleep deprivation, which probably accounts for Charles Lindbergh’s sensed presence during his trans-Atlantic flight to Paris. During the historic journey, Lindbergh became aware that he had company in the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis, in which “the fuselage behind me becomes filled with ghostly presences—vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane. I feel no surprise at their coming. There’s no suddenness to their appearance.” Most critically, these were not aberrations of the cockpit environment such as fog or reflected light because, as Lindbergh recounts, “Without turning my head, I see them as clearly as though in my normal field of vision.” Lindbergh even heard “voices that spoke with authority and clearness,” yet after the flight reported, “I can’t remember a single word they said.” What were these phantom beings doing there? They were there to help, “conversing and advising on my flight, discussing problems of my navigation, reassuring me, giving me messages of importance unattainable in ordinary life.”

As the psychologist James Allan Cheyne, an expert on the study of preternatural experiences, observed: “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.”

All RAAM riders have stories to tell about bizarre experiences they have had under these extraordinary conditions. I would often perceive clusters of mailboxes on the side of the road in the Midwest as cheering fans come out to root us on. Blotches in the pavement from minor road repairs looked like animals and mythical creatures. In the 1982 race the Olympic cyclist John Howard told the ABC television camera crew: “The other day I saw about fifty yards of Egyptian hieroglyphics spread along the highway—craziest thing I’ve ever seen, but it was there!” In that same race John Marino recalled, “In the fog of Pennsylvania I was riding along and I visualized myself riding sideways in a fog tunnel. I put my hand down, stopped, got off the bike and sat down, then got back on the bike.” In the 1986 race Gary Verrill recounted his Out-of-Body like experience: “After day three my consciousness was in a dream state. I was alert enough to carry on a conversation, but at the same time was viewing myself from another plane. The sensation was exactly like dreaming—the only difference was in the disappointment of not being able to wake up or control the dream.”

In the 1990s when I was the Race Director, I would routinely come across blurry-eyed cyclists in the middle of the night blathering on about guardian angels, mysterious figures, and assorted cabals and conspiracies against them. One night in Kansas (where Dorothy had her vision quest to Oz) I came across a RAAM rider standing next to some railroad tracks. When I asked him what he was doing he explained that he was waiting to take the train to see God. More recently, four-time winner Jure Robic witnessed asphalt cracks morph into coded messages, and hallucinated bears, wolves, and even aliens. Also a member of Slovenia army, Robic once dismounted his bike to engage in combat a gaggle of mailboxes he was convinced were enemy troops, and another year found himself being chased by a howling band of black-bearded horsemen. “Mujahedeen, shooting at me,” Robic recalled, “So I ride faster.”

1,000-mile nonstop Iditarod sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, in which mushers go for 9-14 days on minimum sleep, are alone except for their dogs, rarely see other competitors, and hallucinate horses, trains, UFOs, invisible airplanes, orchestras, strange animals, voices without people, and occasionally phantom people on the side of the trail or imaginary friends hitching a ride on the sled and chatting it up with them during long lonely stretches. Four-time winner Lance Mackey recalled a day when he was riding the sled and saw a girl sitting by the side of the trail knitting. “She laughed at me, waved, and I went by her and she was gone. You just laugh.” A musher named Joe Garnie became convinced that a man was riding in his sled bag, so he politely asked the man to leave, but when he didn’t move Garnie tapped him on the shoulder and insisted he depart his sled, and when the stranger refused Garnie swatted him.”

I suggest four explanations: (1) An extension of the normal sensed presence we experience of real people around us; (2) A conflict between the low-road of emotions and the high-road of reason; (3) A conflict within the body schema, or our physical sense of self, in which the brain is tricked into thinking that there is another you; (4) A conflict within the mind schema, or our psychological sense of self, in which the mind is tricked into thinking that there is another mind.

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode was released on April 15, 2023.

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
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