‘Felt presence’: Why we sometimes feel invisible others

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It was 2015 and Luke Robertson was skiing across Antarctica alone. There was nothing to see but vast expanses of snow and ice. Two weeks into a planned 40-day unsupported journey to the South Pole, he was behind schedule, feeling exhausted and demoralised. Then he looked up and to his left he saw… green fields. And not just any green fields, but the fields of his family’s farm in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. There too were the house and garden he grew up in. It was a sight that was both scary and comforting.

When I talked to Robertson on All in the Mind on BBC radio he told me it was weird . But things were to get weirder still. His charging equipment wasn’t working so he couldn’t listen to the music he had with him. The only sound accompanying him was the squeak of his skis on the ice and the howling of the Antarctic wind. But for some reason the theme tune of The Flintstones was playing constantly in his head. Nothing so strange about that perhaps – we all experience this sensation of tunes that become ear worms – but then he saw characters from the cartoon series ahead of him, on the horizon.

As the days went by his experiences became stranger. He heard someone shouting his name and became convinced someone was behind him, following in his footsteps. Yet, every time he turned around to check, there was no one there.  Even so, he couldn’t shake of this feeling of another presence – one that remained with him until he reached the South Pole.

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When he sat down on his sledge, weak with exhaustion, and closed his eyes for a second, he heard a second voice – female this time – urging him to get up, and not to fall asleep, which could be dangerous. He felt her leading him onwards. The voice might even have saved his life. But again, no one was there.

Other explorers and adventurers have reported feeling similar presences, notably Ernest Shackleton, who had a sense of a “fourth man” accompanying his three-man party on the final stage of their epic trek across South Georgia in 1916. Everest mountaineers have also experienced these phantoms acting as guardian angels, helping them to survive and providing an eerie comfort. Sometimes it’s referred to as the “third man factor”.

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