In Brian Inglis's 1989 "Trance: A Natural History of Altered States of Mind"1, the author reviews the mountains of research from his earlier two-volume history of psi ("Natural and Supernatural" and "Science and Parascience" from 1976 and 1984). "Trance" is in effect part 3 of a trilogy. In crafting his legacy and in bidding farewell, Brian attempts for the first time to move beyond amassing source material, and instead to organize his data into an intellectual framework.
The gist is this. The trance state is the portal through which the human spirit enters alternative realities and dimensions, and gains access to potentialities that can be transposed to everyday life--although not predictably and never without difficulty. All of us are potentially endowed with such talents, the trick is to tap into them--and women in particular hold special gifts2.
From the vantage point of a 2019 reader, Brian's legacy is distinctly mixed, yet his impact endures. Let us start with human health. As far back as the 1960s, Inglis set his sights on the medical profession3, then fast losing its aura of infallibility. Why pick this particular battle, at that particular time? The Thalidomide scandal would have scared the wits out of any new parent (while pregnant with me, my mother discussed taking the drug with her ob/gyn, but went no further).
Never again would Brian trust a man in a white coat. And how he would savor the shifts in medical orthodoxy that have emerged since his death in 1993: the drugs withdrawn or slapped with black-box warnings, the teetering consensus on cholesterol (the "good" and "bad" kinds), the longitudinal studies that show zero benefit from lucrative treatments4.
My father had valid criticisms to make, but often went overboard. Brian's reliance on mass hysteria as a one-size-fits-all diagnosis for M.E. and other such conditions has not aged well. Biomedical explanations, not lay psychiatry, provide the only real hope for the chronically ill, who deserve meaningful cures rather than what they typically receive--accusations of malingering and the threat of institutionalization. In the final analysis, informed patients are their own best advocates, and that holds true for skeptics and believers alike.
As my previous profiles of my father have noted, Brian's love affair with FT journalist Margaret van Hattem (a skeptic), the intractability of her final illness, and Brian's friendship with a skeptical biologist all served to humanize his attitudes to nonbelievers. And in this newly mellow mood, did he ever cut any slack to skeptical readers? While the front cover of the 1989 edition of "Trance" warned of indigestible material--the picture of stigmata sounded a clear warning--Brian's introduction apologizes for the 'boggle factor." He acknowledges, in the first person singular (rare for him), that spontaneous combustion and fire-walking are hard to swallow. Was he being candid, was he acting out of character--or was he inserting a disclaimer at the publisher's behest5?
Whatever their motivation, these touches of restraint seldom stay in place for long. The science of quantum mechanics, and the head-scratching phenomenon of quantum entanglement, are trumpeted as vindications in Brian's struggle in defense of the paranormal. Brian's friend Uri Geller insisted, "what I do is real," and Brian thought about his own writings in exactly the same way. For Inglis saw himself as at or near the center of a hub of authors, researchers, and psychics around the world--a proto-web for true believers--who campaigned for recognition of the psi force as the single greatest under-reported story of the modern age.
And as he formulated his "unified field theory" of parapsychology, logic impelled him toward a terrifying conclusion. Specifically, it is scientists who must bend the knee to the Occult--not the reverse. With the goalposts thus changed, the psi force is no longer a second fiddle to Newtonian physics--a will-o'-the-wisp--but has claimed its rightful place as the central mover in the entire universe. And Brian is a new Saint Paul, spreading the glad tidings to a disbelieving world.
Brian's unified field theory, I suspect, had its roots in his earliest years. His father, the engineer Sir Claude Inglis, credited his hydraulic designs to "hunches." In Brian's own words, "Mystic experience [provides] the illumination which precedes each new advance." Brian collected examples of great inventions driven by inexplicable sources of inspiration (August Kekule's dream about the structure of benzene was an Inglis favorite). As William James points out in "The Varieties of Religious Experience," "If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits." It was a source of regret to Brian that he personally encountered few psychic experiences and thus remained trapped in the loquacious realm.
The astonishing reversal of long-accepted values implicit in Brian's theory means that long-established heroes must be knocked off their pedestals. Whilst a Faraday or a Darwin is damned as a reductionist, a repenting materialist (William Crooke, Arthur Conan Doyle) elicits Brian's immediate and sympathetic curiosity. All too often, of course, spiritual conversions point in the other direction6. Had Brian lived, he would have castigated researcher Susan Blackmore, quoted in "Trance," as a turncoat for repudiating her earlier work on out-of-body experiences (OBEs).
In a "New Scientist" article from 2001, Blackmore commented: "It was just over thirty years ago that I had the dramatic out-of-body experience that convinced me of the reality of psychic phenomena and launched me on a crusade to show those closed-minded scientists that consciousness could reach beyond the body and that death was not the end. Just a few years of careful experiments changed all that. I found no psychic phenomena—only wishful thinking, self-deception, experimental error and, occasionally, fraud. I became a skeptic." I cannot see Brian abandoning his beliefs in that way.
Such militancy can wear thin. Brian's high school history teacher, Murray Senior, commended the thoughtful study and quotation of dissenting opinion, where there is always something to learn. Humility and common sense are overlooked qualities in scholars. Wasn't Brian being just a little one-sided? Why, in all seriousness, should Brian's critics be ordered to worship at the temple of psi, or required to pay tribute to Brian's psychic friends? Is James Randi expected to apologize to Uri Geller? Who should be grateful to whom? How many sci/tech patents have spiritualists filed? Which thalidomide babies ever sprouted new limbs in the company of faith-healers?
Scientific research cannot solve every riddle or untangle every knot of human behavior--yet it teaches us much. And as neuroscience unlocks the brain's mysteries, the truths thus exposed will not always be pretty, as our quaint notions of free will and selfhood are torn asunder beneath the electron microscope. Mobs and hooligans and the vast mass of humanity may have no great psychic depths -- other than depths of violence -- to plumb.
In closing, this review would not be complete without a discovery -- an atypical Brian Inglis quote from "Trance" on UFOs, never his favorite field. Modern-day Ufology is less New Age-y than Brian. It has a respect for pure scientific and technological accomplishment (whether by aliens or ourselves) that would have held scant interest for him. In seeking explanations, he falls back on hallucination, a skeptic's answer that Ufologists would reject.
"If hallucination is accepted as capable of creating forms so lifelike that they can deceive all the senses, this could explain much that has been downgraded as myth. As Peter McKellar suggested, it is not improbable 'that widespread superstitions about little people, for example the leprechauns of Ireland, had initially a hallucinatory origin' - a notion that offers a wide field for exploration, notably in connection with UFOs."
1Published by Paladin, now republished by White Crow Books.
2This appreciation for women mediums acquired in middle age led Brian to abandon the casual chauvinism of his earlier years.
3"Fringe Medicine" (1964).
4How he would relish the title of a recent article published in a bastion of rationalism (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/is-medicine-overrated/).
5He is less than honest in discussing own his innermost motivations. He talks of mescaline and peyote, yet passes over any hint of personal experimentation.
6Brian's friend the psychic Keith "Blue" Harary repudiated his own abilities in the pages of "Psychology Today" in November 2004.
The Power of Prose