The Third Man Factor by John Geiger: A Discussion of the Sensed Presence Phenomenon


In John Geiger’s book you will read harrowing tales of mountain climbers, sailors, Polar Explorers and the like who get themselves caught up in life threatening situations and come close to the brink of death. In such situations, there is often a sensed presence, which may be seen as another person there with you, or just merely felt—a strong feeling no doubt that there is someone else with you, guiding you, comforting you, instructing you and giving you strength to carry on when otherwise hope seems lost.

It’s called the Third Man Factor, but it could easily be called the Second Man Factor, the Fourth Man factor, etc… It’s simply the felt, sometimes heard or seen, presence of a being that appears mysteriously to join you in your time of need.

This presence is often there to tell you what to do to survive and give you the encouragement, strength and hope necessary to go on when circumstances seem dire. Geiger opens his book with the experience of Ron DiFrancesco, who was working on the 84th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001, a day that will live in infamy, when planes rammed into the buildings causing their collapse. When the plane sliced into the South Tower, striking the building’s south face between floors 77 and 85, DiFrancesco was flung against the wall and showered with debris. He managed to enter a stairwell, which, fortunately, was protected from destruction by a big elevator machine room. He met up with some other survivors in the stairwell. However, it was filled with smoke and visibility was low. After going up and down and trying to decide what to do—wait for firefighters to rescue them or continue descending—the group was blocked from further descent by debris obstructing the stairway. Most had given up by this time and lay on the concrete gasping for air in the thick smoke that filled the stairway. DiFrancesco would have given up too, but some presence propelled DiFrancesco to continue on. He said that someone called him and told him to get up. He says this was a male voice, but did not belong to any of the others in the stairwell. Furthermore, there was a clear sense of a physical presence to whomever this voice belonged to. He even said that he had the sensation that “somebody lifted me up”, as if this presence was physically there and physically intervening in the situation to save his life. The presence guided him to resume his descent, which he did–fighting through drywall and other debris obstructing the stairwell. Then he encountered flames, which obviously made him stop and recoil. However, the presence urged him to continue, so he covered his head with his forearms and ran down the steps through the fire which continued for about three stories. He finally came to a clear, lit stairwell on the 76th floor and only then did the sense of a presence disappear. He continued down and exited the building. He was the last person out of the South Tower before it collapsed.

And this brings up another theme throughout Geiger’s book, and that is the presence disappears as quickly and mysteriously as it appeared when the person is out of danger. Oftentimes it happens just before their rescue, as if the presence knows that they are about to be rescued and no longer needs to be there.

Such was the experience of Rob Taylor who fell from a wall of ice on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Luckily, he was saved by his climbing rope, but after slipping he slammed into the ice wall breaking his foot grotesquely. He had to pop the bones of his shin and foot back into place. His boot filled with blood, and at 18,000 feet elevation and over 70 miles from the nearest medical help, he suddenly found himself in a race against time as infection and gangrene were real possibilities. His climbing partner tried to help him as best he could get down the mountain, but his partner Warner could not carry him far, and Taylor himself was reduced to crawling and dragging himself on his chest. This was obviously way too slow, so it was decided for Taylor to bivouac, or camp out, while Warner went to get help. Warner assured him help should arrive by the following morning.

However, no one came the next day. Taylor had other troubles too, as his stove ran out of fuel preventing him from melting snow into water. But then he noticed the figure of a man sitting serenely on a boulder some fifty yards away. This presence did not respond to his shouts, but just sat there on the boulder watching and peering at him through the snow. After two more days and nights passed, Taylor started to give up hope that a rescue team would come, figuring that something must have happened to Warner and he never made it down the mountain to find help. His companion, however, moved closer and he says he felt it was “very benevolent, peaceful, and reassuring.” After some time, the presence suddenly departed and he felt alone. Mere minutes after he felt the presence leave, he heard his name being called. The rescue team had arrived!

Now, conventionally, how could you explain this? Well, there are many theories. One of the leading ones involves the junction of the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain. Geiger says that activity in this area “is involved in our awareness of our physical self, and helps us to distinguish between ourselves and someone else. The parietal lobe integrates and organizes sensory information, such as sight, sound, and body image.”1 Basically the brain integrates a bunch of sensory information to give you a sense of where you are at in space. The implication is that under conditions of extreme stress or oxygen deprivation, a disruption occurs in this part of the brain which may cause you to hallucinate a sense of presence where there is none, as your brain is projecting a second self, a second body image where there is none.

In one experiment, Doctors using electrodes stimulated the temporoparietal junction of an epileptic woman and “the patient sensed the presence of a sinister figure behind her who copied her actions.”2 Obviously that’s a little different than Third Man Experiences which do not involve presences simply copying your actions and are not interpreted as sinister.

Other research headed by Michael Persinger sought to invoke the sensed presence by stimulating the brain via magnetic fields. Subjects, who were told they were involved in a relaxation experiment, put on a helmet fitted with solenoids to deliver magnetic pulses, or fields, to the subjects’ brains. Participants who received magnetic stimulation either just over the right hemisphere of the brain or equally  over both hemispheres reported more experiences of a sensed presence and also fear.3 Obviously, these Third Man Factor experiences are anything but fearful. They involve a very calming presence that helps people overcome extreme odds to survive. Although most of the reports published by Persinger involving magnetic stimulation are unlike The Thrid Man Factor presence, one or two come close, such as this one from Persinger’s 2006 study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience:

“I felt a presence behind me and then along the left side. When I tried to focus on its position, the presence moved. Every time I tried to sense where it was, it moved around. When it moved to the right side, I experienced a deep sense of security like I had not experienced before. I started to cry when I felt it slowly fade away” (the field parameters had been changed).”4

The sense of security provided by the presence definitely portends well with the comfort provided by the Third Man. However, there is still a discrepancy by the way it moved around when he tried to focus on it. In most Third Man cases when the presence is merely felt, but not seen, people will turn around to look for him/her but not see them. It’s not as if when they turn to look they sense that the presence has moved to another location. It’s just that they can’t see them, but they feel them there. It seems odd that they can’t see anybody there, but they still feel the presence. Let’s turn our attention to one of these cases.

Paul Firth was a South African who had a Third Man experience while descending from the summit of Aconcongua, a 22,834-foot peak in the Argentine Andes. He was exhausted on his way down and stopped to rest at about 22,000 feet. To his horror, he discovered that five of his fingers were blackened by frostbite. Not only that, it was getting dark and he risked death due to exposure if he didn’t make it back to camp. Shortly after realizing his predicament he “abruptly developed a powerful sensation” and stated:

“I was sitting there, and then I suddenly felt like there was somebody behind me. The hair went up on the back of my neck, and I jumped up and I turned around to look for this person. And there was nobody there. I thought, gee, that’s kind of odd, and I sat down, and then thought, “there’s somebody with me” and I got up again and turned around and looked up the slope.”5

And of course, every time he looked there was no one there. He couldn’t see them. However, upon continuing down the mountain, he describes that the presence was following behind him, encouraging him to keep going and even dispensing practical advice. He describes it as having a mental conversation with this presence who told him “just focus on where you’re going. Just put one foot in front of the other. Don’t Panic…”

Of course this can easily be construed as talking to yourself, with the false impression that you are talking to another. But it is really your own mind sort of split into an alternate personality whose purpose is to keep you calm and tell you what to do. Everything said are things you should know to do anyway, but in times of extreme stress your mind splits itself into you and another to allow a calmer voice to prevail, one unencumbered by the stresses that limit your thinking and ability to reason. So at those times you just have to take instructions from the other self the mind has created, which is split off from the stress of the situation and can calmly and rationally guide you. Then you don’t have to think as much and have a better chance of surviving.

Well, that’s a nice little story we can tell ourselves, isn’t it? It’s all in the brain. If you haven’t noticed, my name is MysticDan. And we’re not about to be satisfied with an “it’s all in the brain” explanation. We’re looking for experiences that can’t just be “in the brain”. There’s something paranormal going on. It’s to these experiences we now turn.

Joshua Slocum was sailing for Gibraltar as part of his attempt to circumnavigate the world alone when his boat was hit by a fierce Squall. At the same time Slocum became suddenly very ill, possibly from food poisoning, and threw himself on the floor of his cabin near the wheel. He said,

“I became delirious. When I came to, as I thought, from my swoon, I realized that the sloop was plunging into a heavy sea, and looking out of the companionway, to my amazement I saw a tall man at the helm. His rigid hand, grasping the spokes of the wheel, held them as in a vise.”6

The man at the helm who Slocum now saw assured him that he had come to do him no harm and that he would guide his ship tonight. The ship was in the midst of a storm with waves breaking and pounding on the ship’s cabin, yet Slocum was not worried. Slocum said he felt as if he were “in the presence of a friend and a seaman of vast experience.”

When the storm was over and he recovered and retook the wheel, he found that his ship was still on course to Gibraltar, going like a racehorse, and had made 90 miles in the night as he lay incapacitated on the floor of his cabin.

This sort of experience really makes one wonder about the supernatural. How could his ship have stayed on course throughout the battering of the waves and heavy storm? Maybe he just got lucky. Maybe. Or maybe a Third Man, an actual seaman from past times possibly, took bodily form again from the spirit and steered the ship for him.

Then, there’s the experience of Brian Shoemaker who was flying in Antarctica when he lost all radio contact with the base he was supposed to be flying to. There was no navigator on board and the landscape was an endless sea of white. Him and the crew could not get a bearing on where they were and felt they might be off course or flying in a circle. After some time, Shoemaker felt a presence with them in the cockpit. It spoke to him, assuring him that he was doing alright. It then told him to “turn to a heading about 20 degrees to the right.” He did so, saying ““I had nothing else to go by…. It was eerie. It wasn’t frightening. It was a solace. That was the decision I had to make; follow it, or follow my own, and I had no idea which way to go.”7

It seems like we have a case here where he received knowledge that he could not have known by normal means. All he saw was a vast expanse of white. The presence told him a specific heading which he should turn to, and that heading did in fact lead back to the base. I guess you could argue that his subconscious mind had picked up on clues that his conscious mind was oblivious to. Then his mind/brain created a second self to inform him of what his subconscious mind knew to be the right heading based on subliminal cues. This does seem like an odd way for the brain to work though.

The last head-scratching experience I’ll share comes not from Geiger’s book , but from the forum he set up for people around the world to share their experiences. John Robbins shared an experience he had when he was 13 years old in which he was attempting to body surf near an empty beach. He got caught up in the largest surf he had ever experienced to that point. Caught in the midst of extremely strong waves, being battered about, diving down and coming up gasping for air only to be crushed by another wave, he eventually realized he was about to die. He says,

“I was having flashes of my life, which seemed like an instant rerun of my entire life. Suddenly, to my left, there was a man with a flimsy little air mat, like one might use in a swimming pool, saying, “You look like you could use some help, take a hold of this.” I did, and the next thing I remember is that I am gliding into the shore, on the leading edge of the white water of the third and largest wave. This memory defies all logic of what should happen in such a situation. Even with an air mat to hold on to, being hit by a wall of white water of that size would still thrash someone about with great ferocity. And yet, it seemed as if I just glided into the shore. Needless to say, I was exhausted by the experience, and needed a few moments to recover my breath. I sat on the waters’ edge, arms on my knees, panting. Then I thought to thank my rescuer. I looked up, and there was no one visible in either direction along the shoreline, nor was there anyone further back on the beach. There was no air mat. I was alone.”8

It certainly seems quite odd that his rescuer would simply “disappear” after getting him safely back to shore. Don’t you think most people would stick around and ask questions, like “Where’s your family, kid?” “Are you ok?”, etc… He even mentions that the man who saved him looked like “a balding, middle-aged, somewhat paunchy working man” who didn’t look like an experienced beacher, as he had white skin, not tan. He mentions that he could see for quite a distance, so he should have been able to see the man leaving the scene when he looked up to thank him. And he says there was nobody on the beach when he went out to body surf.

The order of the universe and the laws of nature are regularities which we have come to rely upon, and can be relied upon. But sometimes things happen which defy the laws of nature—at least as we know them. Sometimes things materialize out of nowhere. This may be a UFO, this may be a presence which comes into our material world to help us overcome a distressing and life-threatening situation.

This will never be reproduced in a laboratory; This will never be validated by science. That’s because these things happen in situations which cannot be reproduced in a laboratory. You’re not going to set up an experiment where you bring someone to the brink of death. It’s not gonna happen. It’s unethical.

But there are times, in real-life situations, where interventions are made from a higher dimension of reality.

Some things we didn’t cover which are interesting about the phenomenon is that the experience can involve a sense of presence which is unknown to the person experiencing it. Or it may involve the sense of a presence who is known to the experiencer, whether they are deceased or still living. Also, the experience can be shared by multiple people. Even if they don’t communicate the fact until later on, all the people involved will say that they experienced the presence there with them.

John Geiger followed this book up with another book entitled The Angel Effect. I recommend reading both if you are interested in this topic.

  1. Geiger, John. The Third Man Factor. Weinstein Books, 2009.
  2. Brain electrodes conjure up ghostly visions (
  5. Geiger, John. The Third Man Factor. Weinstein Books, 2009.
  6. Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone Around the World (1900).
  7. Geiger, John. The Third Man Factor. Weinstein Books, 2009.

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