Christianity Thomas on 11 Nov 2009 12:21 am
This story on CNN is talking about the “Third Man” phenomenon. Notice how they offer no real explanation for the phenomenon, instead emphasizing on the possibility of “guardian angels”:
DiFrancesco was the last person to get out of the south tower before it fell, Geiger writes.
DiFrancesco never saw nor could he ever find out who helped him. But he doesn’t think the presence was something his subconscious conjured.
“It was a higher being rather than an internal being,” DiFrancesco said. “Maybe it was an angel. I didn’t see the face of God, but I know somebody came and helped me.”
This is CNN’s nod to science:
Geiger says the Third Man could have several explanations. He says scientists studying the phenomenon were able to evoke the sensation of someone standing next to a solitary person in a lab by stimulating certain parts of the subject’s brain.
Yet that presence did not have the active, benevolent and intelligent presence that others often cite during Third Man encounters, he says.
Maybe the Third Man is a coping mechanism, Geiger suggests. The brain creates a companion to help a person survive a terrible situation. Or perhaps there is an “angel switch” in the brain that’s activated in life-or-death struggles.
Wikipedia does the same thing:
Various theories have been presented as possible explanations for the phenomenon, including psychological and neurological explanations, although religious observers suggest the reported cases are manifestations of a guardian angel. The concept was popularized by a book by John Geiger, The Third Man Factor, that documents scores of examples.
Since “guardian angels” are as imaginary as God, rational people seek rational explanations. Like this:
The theories for explaining the third-man experience vary widely. Ron DiFrancesco, the 9/11 survivor who walked out of the South Tower, is convinced that a divine being was by his side, and indeed a spiritual interpretation is common. Scientists, by contrast, have discovered how to evoke the sensation of a shared presence by stimulating the brain with electricity. Mr. Messner, the mountaineer, leans toward the idea that the third-man phenomenon is a survival strategy hard-wired into the brain. “The body is inventing ways to provide company,” he says.
Although Mr. Geiger never shoots down any specific theory, he seems to endorse a biochemical explanation. “It is possibly even an evolutionary adaption,” he writes. “Imagine the advantage for primitive man, perhaps separated during a hunt, alone far from his tribal group, to have the guiding hand of a companion pointing the way home.” But the phenomenon is not limited to people in extremis. Mr. Geiger notes that children often experience real-seeming “imaginary friends,” while widows and widowers say that they feel the presence of a deceased spouse.
Some psychologists believe it’s an example of bicameralism. Under stress, the usually dominant left hemisphere loses some hold over the mind, and logical thinking declines. The right brain, involved in imaginative thinking, intrudes, explains Geiger.
Another theory suggests the Third Man is a coping mechanism, a mental process for calming and separating the person from the horrible experience. “Just as we have a biochemical response to stress through adrenaline, this is a mental process that helps us survive.”
But why do some people sense a wise helper, and others don’t?
“There may be psychological variables,” says Geiger.
“Some people may be more open to new things and experiences.”
For some people, it may kick in at lower stress levels than others.
Young children’s imaginary friends may be Third Man-like manifestations.
In studies of widows and widowers, says Geiger, between 30 to 50 per cent reported having felt the presence of the deceased partner.
Whether the Third Man is an angel or a survival mechanism is for people to decide for themselves, says Geiger.
What turns certain death into a narrow escape? For countless explorers, extreme athletes, and even victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a spectral presence, seen or sensed, has stepped in to save them: the Third Man.
The key to overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to survive begins, then, with the simple belief that an individual will somehow triumph over his or her immediate appalling situation; that he or she is going to live. That is the premise with which most people begin their ordeal. It is when that faith is severely tested, and failure — even death — seems inevitable, that the Third Man appears.
So what changes? It appears our brains have a kind of placebo social sense, a humanity trigger. In a study published in 2006, researchers with the Presurgical Epilepsy Unit of the Department of Neurology at University Hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, were able to artificially induce an “illusory shadow person” in patients by using a mild electric current to stimulate their left temporoparietal junction — an area of the brain involved in our awareness of our physical self that helps us distinguish between ourselves and someone else. Researchers have found a change in parietal activity at the height of meditative experiences, at a point when subjects reported a “greater interconnectedness of things,” which supports the view of some that the temporoparietal junction is also a prime node for religious experience. Lesions in this area can produce a sense of an unseen presence; the hyperactivity of schizophrenics’ temporoparietal cortex can result in their believing their own body is someone else’s.
But what activates this phenomenon in people in extreme environments? A British study published in 2002 speculated on the origin of the Third Man in such cases: “The hallucinations might indicate the brain’s attempt to create the perception of a person during cases of increased arousal (fear, paranoia). The heightened state of awareness and physical privation might go some way to explaining this in…shipwreck survivors and mountaineers.” The brain may be attempting to create a complete human form from “incomplete sensory data.” It is, in other words, creating a companion.
Does this capacity exist in every one of us? This mechanism is not some fluke of human brain structure, and it seems an unlikely by-product of decaying brain function. Perhaps it is there to do precisely what it does for people in need. It is possibly even an evolutionary adaptation. It’s a stirring reminder of what social animals we are — that in our time of deepest solitude and need, our brain finds a way to conjure up a helpful companion, and that companionship is what ultimately makes the difference between life and death.