Blog North Awards shortlisted

Blog North Awards shortlisted

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Importance of Being Open

This week in snowy Banff, my reading of Maria Coffey's 'Explorers of the Infinite' and the imaginary conversations I've been having with dead climbers in my poems (who says a writing residency turns you eccentric?) have converged on John G. Geiger's superb book 'The Third Man Factor' and its discussion of hallucinatory experiences and sensed presences in the mountains.At this point, I should thank A.B. Jackson - someone far more expert on the topic than me - for pointing me in Geiger's direction. 'The Third Man Factor' looks at the prevalence of these sensed presences in human experience, particularly in extreme environments. In a chapter called 'The Muse Factor', Geiger hints at a possible link between poetry and mountaineering. Here, my interest was piqued.

Starting the chapter with an account of how the late seventh century BC poet Hesiod claimed to have encountered the Muses on the slopes of a Greek mountain, Geiger relates this to Julian Jaynes' theory of The Bicameral Mind (a favourite topic on this blog). Jaynes said of Hesiod: "the poet was not out of his mind...rather his creativity was much closer to what we have come to call bicameral... And loneliness can lead to hallucination." Hesiod's vision then, might have been genuine auditory hallucination rather than fantasy. Geiger is similarly willing to believe that the presence of another person, so often reported by mountaineers at altitude, is something really experienced as present - a genuine illusion rather than a delusion. But what factors can trigger it?

Aside from external influences (such as exhaustion, oxygen deprivation and intense pain) which affect the brain, Geiger looks at internal factors that relate to these kind of visions, most notably the variable psychologists call 'openness to experience'. This is one of the five factors in the 'Big Five' theory of personality that appears in much psychological literature (along with neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness). As Geiger puts it "people with this characteristic typically are full of ideas, quick to understand things, have unconventional values, aesthetic sensitivity and a need for variety."

Might we hazard a guess that many mountaineers as well as many poets typically score highly on this characteristic, though they express their need for stimulation and variety very differently? Relating the openness characteristic to brain function, Geiger adds "it is associated with functions of the pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain linked to what is often called 'executive system' functions - abstract thinking, the organization of actions and inhibition of inappropriate actions - and personality."

Geiger goes on to suggest another concept which might explain why some people are more susceptible to presence encounters: absorption - an individual's capacity to become involved or immersed in events. In other words, a person's state of receptivity. High absorption can lead to a heightened sense of reality of the kind reported by many high-altitude mountaineers (and, indeed, poets in the act of writing).

As Geiger concludes: "People who experience all the necessary situational challenges, but are low in openness, may not interpret the effects as involving the Third Man....those high in absorption or openness possess the muse factor."

At the start of the Banff Mountain Film and Book festival last week, audiences heard allusions to an experience of Third Man Factor by the mountaineer Reinhold Messner during a screening of 'Messner', the film. Descending from Nanga Parbat on June 27, 1970, with his younger brother Gunther (the latter struggling to keep up), Reinhold sensed a third climber beside them “keeping a regular distance a little to my right and a few steps away from me, just out of my field of vision.” He says he felt this figure was somehow ordinary, expected even, not a rare or supernatural visitation at all. Later, when Gunther disappeared on the mountain and Reinhold searched frantically for him, the third man was still there. Years after the ordeal, Messner would often feel he was tracked by an ethereal being in the hills and thought it was the spirit of his dead brother, lost on Nanga Parbat.

Whenever I hear accounts like his, I think of John Burnside's 'The Good Neighbour', with its idea of another being drawing close, mirroring your own movements:

….like that ghost companion in the old
explorers’ tales, that phantom in the sleet
fifth in a party of four, he’s not quite there
but not quite inexistent, nonetheless.

Perhaps both poets and mountaineers have a particular sensitivity to (and fascination with) these phantoms. Armchair travellers, you have more in common with explorers than you think.


  1. Fascinating stuff! However, a slight word of caution before equating all mountaineers with poetic sensitives (I know you're not doing this!): there are many mountaineers with minds that can't look beyond self-aggrandisement, oblivious to anything else, and skins as thick as oxhides. Having said this, there are many, many honourable exceptions: Robert MacFarlane, for instance.

  2. Haha, it's a forced, playful analogy really. Never mind mountaineers with tunnel vision, a lot of poets would faint at the prospect of a night bivvying in the snow! There are plenty of differences between all our different sensibilities, of course.

  3. Indeed! I do find it hard to imagine John Betjeman with an ice pick :)

  4. 'John Betjeman with an Ice Pick' sounds like a good / surreal title for a poem, however!

  5. Hesiod, absorption and The Third Man: you've given me so many wonderful things (and persons) to contemplate from my armchair. And I love your final paragraph especially. It's tremendous.