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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, November 8, 2014

New Experiment Fails to Explain the “Third Man Factor”

In 2009 we saw the appearance of John Geiger's interesting book The Third Man Factor. Geiger compiled quite a few cases of people in great danger who felt an extraordinary feeling that an unseen person was present, a person urging them to make the extraordinary effort needed to survive.

The most common type of person experiencing such a feeling seemed to be an adventurer or explorer in great danger of dying. One such person was James Sevigny, who reported that when he was in deep trouble when exploring the Canadian Rockies, an unseen presence began mentally communicating all kinds of instructions, apparently through something like telepathy. When Stephanie Schwabe got into trouble during an underwater cave dive, and was panicking, she felt an unseen presence telling her to calm down. During a dire part of Ernest Shackleton's epic struggle for survival in the Antarctic (one of the most interesting adventure stories in history), Shackleton and two other men (Crean and Worsley) sensed (according to their later reports) that they had a feeling that there was an unseen person marching with them. In 1933 when British explorer Frank Smythe almost became the first man to climb the top of Mount Everest, he reported an extremely strong sense of a helpful unseen companion as he trudged through perilous terrain.

Geiger also reported that this “third man factor” can occur in cases not involving adventurers. One such case was Ron DiFrancesco, who tried to descend a stairwell in the doomed World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, only to find his path blocked by smoke, fire, and wreckage. DiFrancesco reported that an unseen presence suddenly addressed him by name and gave him encouragement to make the enormous effort to survive the crisis. He even reported that some unseen person “lifted me up” and guided him down the damaged stairs, to safety. Finally, improbably, he made his way to safety, becoming the last office worker to make it out of the South Tower before it collapsed.

Some scientists have created an experiment designed to explain away this “feeling of an unseen presence.” But due to the poor design of the experiment, it fails to do any such thing.

The research was done by Olaf Blanke and his team in Switzerland. The first part of their research involved studying people with epilepsy and other motor-related problems, people who had reported feelings of an unseen presence. Blanke claims to have found common brain lesions in such people. But such research does nothing to explain the type of incidents described in The Third Man Factor, which mainly involve ordinary, healthy people without brain lesions, and largely involve people with superb motor-related skills – quite the opposite of people with motor-related problems.

The second part of the research done by Blanke was a weird experiment using robots. Seventeen subjects were blindfolded and linked up in some strange way with robots, in some “master slave” arrangement. In some cases the robots provided tactile feedback. Blanke reports that under such conditions quite a few of the subjects reported a “feeling of presence” rather like someone standing behind them – a hardly surprising result for a blindfolded person who is hooked up with a nearby robot as shown in the photo below.

The weird experiment (Credit: Alain Herzog/EPFL)

A press release reporting on this research (reproduced here) has tried to suggest that this research is some kind of explanation for the “third man factor” described by Geiger. Such a suggestion is unfounded. Blanke's research does nothing at all to explain the feeling of telepathic communication reported in the accounts collected by Geiger. Moreover, Blanke's research does not even explain the basic sense of an unseen presence reported in such accounts. Why? Simply because such accounts were given by people who were nowhere near robots, but Blanke's experiments only involve people who are hooked right up to robots.

What Blanke's experiments show is merely that when you blindfold people and hook them up to robots, they may have a feeling that somebody is nearby. That's a very trivial finding, which doesn't really explain anything.

I can only imagine the deliberations that might have gone on when they were thinking up Blanke's experiments. Perhaps it went something like this:

Scientist 1: Let's try to debunk that “third man factor” reported in Geiger's book. We'll trail a mile behind some mountain climbers climbing way up some peak of 20,000 feet. We'll carry along some big heavy MRI scanner, a generator, and some gas for the generator. Then if the mountain climbers get into trouble and report that “third man factor” thing--a mysterious sense of an unseen presence--we'll rush over to them, scan their brains with the MRI, and show that it's just due to some brain state.

Scientist 2: No, no. Too much work. Let's just stay warm and comfy, stay indoors, and play around with some robots. 

If Blanke's goal was actually trying to explain the “third man factor” reported in Geiger's book, then Blanke's experimental approach was both lazy and lacking in good sense. Also, Blanke's paper has a misleading title. It's called “Neurological and Robot-Controlled Induction of an Apparition.” An apparition is defined as seeing something; for example, the Merriam Webster online dictionary defines an apparition as “a ghostly figure,” while the first online Google definition is “a ghost or ghostlike image of a person.” A mere “sense that someone is there” by blindfolded people hooked up to a robot is not an apparition. Blanke hasn't actually produced an apparition by hooking people up to a robot, so the title of his paper is inaccurate.