Ancient Greek supplicants seeking wellness at the temple of Asclepius often took part in fasting, purification baths, and sacrifices. These rituals usually culminated in a practice called “temple sleep” or “dream incubation.” Worshippers would sleep in the temple, and during the night, the god Asclepius would appear to them and deliver a message or a treatment. Sometimes the patient would awake healthy and restored, and sometimes priests would interpret the dream and prescribe treatment accordingly. Worshippers thanked Asclepius by tossing gold into the sacred fountain and by hanging votive offerings on the walls of the temple.
It’s hard to know exactly what happened during temple sleep. It’s possible that some supplicants were healed through the combination of hypnotic suggestion and the placebo effect. Another, more outlandish possibility is that patients were given a furtive dose of narcotics by the doctor-priests, who then performed medical procedures while dressed as the god Asclepius. 1
Dream incubation is just one of the topics addressed in “The Power of Dreams” (originally published by HarperCollins Ltd in 1987, and reissued by White Crow Books in 2018).
If you, as a reader in 2020, know about the paranormal at all, chances are that your exposure to the subject was directly or indirectly influenced by this book’s author, the Irish journalist and historian Brian Inglis (1916-1993). In his polemical works on parapsychology, Inglis crafted the language and conceptual framework relied upon by believers in the Occult within the English-speaking world of the late 20th century.
The arc of Inglis’s career spanned several phases. In the stage that concerns us here, Inglis was an advocate for the existence of the psi force, calling upon a skeptical world to accept the reality of the paranormal. His militancy burned with the fire of the convert after his departure from the world of television2 in 1972, whereupon, duly freed from contractual inhibitions, he cast all caution to the winds. While savoring his newfound freedom he made friends with celebrity psychics—and the more outrageous their claims, the better.
However, as of the late 1970s, Inglis’s focus on psychic supermen and superwomen began to evolve, and he decided that special powers might reside in all mankind. As his opinions continued to mature in the 1980s, he began to take a growing interest in dreams, but also in serendipity and coincidence—more subtle phenomena which all people (skeptics included) experience, and tend to regard as normal rather than paranormal. While the carnival atmosphere of Brian’s earlier psi books was toned down, what he was discussing remained the same beast—or at least, a flip side of the same multidimensional coin.
As approximate contemporaries yet generationally quite different men, Inglis and his friend and mentor Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) came to the paranormal late in life and in roundabout ways. In their pitched battle against skeptics, Inglis and Koestler blended intellectual curiosity with a thirst for controversy, and a willingness to storm the citadels of orthodoxy (whether occupied by doctors and surgeons, physicists, or members of the “Establishment”—toward whom my father, as a proud Irish expatriate in London, felt distinct ambivalence). Koestler's suicide left Inglis temporarily in charge of the KIB Society (later known as The Koestler Foundation), an organization both men had founded to sponsor research “outside the scientific orthodoxies.” Inglis had to maintain the momentum, and no longer young himself, was in a race against time.
As in the later “Coincidence” (pubs. Hutchinson 1990),3 “The Power of Dreams” cast a spotlight on happenstances which all human beings—from true believers to skeptics—may from time to time encounter: serendipity, inspirational or precognitive dreams, and timeslips. In contrast to Inglis's earlier two-volume history of psi4, “The Power of Dreams” does not strain credulity. Its pages hold no references to gravity-defying or time-twisting stunts, such as levitation or teleportation. By definition, such feats would be available only to a gifted minority (and only then if such incidents occur at all). This shift toward greater naturalism suspends the reader's disbelief. Don’t imagine, however, that Inglis had left psi behind; dreams and extrasensory perception formed points along a continuum, and “The Power of Dreams” discreetly yet firmly builds upon the author's earlier forays into the supernatural. Inglis had an agenda and he intended to carry it out.
But to win over a disbelieving world, Inglis would need allies. Which ones? Brian despised those eminent Victorians whom he regarded as professional skeptics (Faraday, Darwin). Nonetheless, he is at pains to extend the hand of friendship to any recovering rationalist whose unbelief has been “shaken” (a favorite Inglis word) by an eye-witness experience at some seance or similar psychic event. Below is a classic paragraph conjuring up the golden age of mediumship in the late 20th century—the historical period in which my father always seemed most at home.
“More elaborate research was carried out towards the end of the 19th century by Giovanni Battista Ermacora, one of a number of distinguished Italian scientists who had made their reputations while adhering to (...) positivism, but who were so shaken by what they witnessed while investigating mediums—in particular, Eusapia Palladino—that they shed their scepticism, and began to conduct psychical research in earnest.5 The most celebrated of them, Cesare Lombroso, eventually became a convert to spiritualism. Others, among them Ermacora, strove to remain detached, devoting their time to exploring the phenomena of mediumship and trying to fit them into science's conventional framework.” Attempts to salvage that framework, Brian strongly implies, were doomed.
Inglis’s work betrays confirmation bias—the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories—and any plausible labwork finds its way into his arguments. “In his earlier research, into electricity, Ermacora had already established an enviable reputation. His research with Maria [Mancini], meticulously conducted, remains an impressive source of evidence for extra-sensory perception in dreams. The records of the tests make it clear that he was not being duped by his subjects; and he was careful to invite other researchers (...) to witness what he was doing.” 6
Of course, any scientist straying ever so slightly from the beaten path is inviting mockery at best and professional ruin at worst; and Inglis sympathized with those researchers whose contrarian insights gathered outside the laboratory earned them nothing but ridicule. The dream of German chemist August Kekulé, with its glimpse into the structure of the benzene ring (afforded by the vision of a self-devouring snake), is the classic paradigm here.7 The truth is, however, that Inglis never set foot inside laboratories himself—he refused to call himself a “parapsychologist,” for that reason. Indeed, he considered scientific tools nice enough, but ultimately irrelevant to the search for the psi force, which, in his eyes, was intangible and evanescent, impossible to pin down but real and earth-shaking at the same time. The study of elementary physics and chemistry would have struck him as pointless. Inglis toys with scientific paradigms, finds them wanting—and tosses them aside.
If there is any kind of “scientific method” here, it is found in the book's deliberate logical structure and adoption of academic forms. Inglis subdivides his topic as follows: “Inspiration from Dreams,” “Problem-Solving in Dreams,” “Second Sight in Dreams,” “Dreaming the Future,” “Lucid Dreaming,” and “Dream Interpretation.”
The purpose of this logical framework is to amass a mountain of categorized and interlocking evidence too overwhelming to ignore. Should anyone dare contradict him, the nearest weapon to hand will suffice; and Bible miracle stories—dismissed by Inglis in his youth—come in for a warmer reception thanks to their celebratory approach toward faith healing, bilocation, and life beyond death.
More conventional literary sources are another rich mine. For all Inglis's ambivalence about the British upper classes, he was hardly going to pass up the published memoirs of the pillars of Empire, even those authors not typically associated with the Occult, such as H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling. Although no fan of Kipling’s—in my father’s own words, “a writer for those who know what they like”—Brian nonetheless credited him with one redeeming feature, as the following quote illustrates.
“Rudyard Kipling felt certain that the great majority of dreams which appeared to foretell the future were simply lucky hits. But one of his dreams, he felt bound to admit in “Something of Myself” (1937), had 'passed beyond the bounds of ordinance.”8
Dreamscapes have been fertile ground for works of creative ingenuity—and a remedy for writer's block (conceivably even Inglis’s own).
“Sir Walter Scott, too, whenever he was in difficulties with a story, noted [that] it ‘was always when I first opened my eyes that the desired ideas thronged upon me. This is so much the case that I am in the habit or relying upon it, and saying to myself, when I am at a loss, “Never mind, we shall have it at seven o'clock tomorrow morning”.’9
As you can see, Inglis read far and wide, and his personal library and private clippings collection grew to substantial size. He digested a broad church of secondary sources, and had pored over primary materials at his cherished London Library, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), and other similar institutions.
Yet fresh, up-to-the-minute, non-Victorian and non-Edwardian materials would also be needed. Inglis solicited personal accounts from around the globe, which arrived by the sackload. And while Inglis died before e-mail, modern technology was beginning to make communications with the common man (and in particular, with women) a more appealing experience.
Like a doctor who has no wish to hear patients’ lamentations at parties, Brian grew impatient with tales of personal ESP in regular social banter, unless his conversationalist held some other interest or personal attraction. Still, Brian savored the most eye-catching stories. And in his later books, he would piece together these materials to argue the case that an overlooked force of nature lurked out there somewhere, in our mind’s eye and in the world around us—a force whose existence could no longer be denied, except by skeptics pursuing their damnable agendas. The more fools they—and they would soon be consigned to the ash-heap of history once the existence of psi was confirmed.
Quirky personal experiences thus provided the acid test. Inglis volunteered no unified field theory or dusty equations that might cause the magic to evaporate, the will-o’-the-wisp to disappear. In casting in his lot with 1st-person accounts, Inglis was turning his back on the academic world from which he had once earned a PhD, a world which holds anecdotal material in contempt. 10
Thus we see how Inglis edged away from his earlier penchant for psychic “supermen” (Uri Geller and Daniel Dunglas Home), and came to adopt a more egalitarian approach that embraced the insights and experiences of the average man or woman (several paragraphs in the book are devoted to winning on the horses). And it was in the ranks of general audiences, the intelligent layman far removed from the ivory tower, that Inglis claimed his legacy. Much as he would hate the term, he remained to some extent the high-quality popularizer that he had always been during his television career. His influence is the greater for it.
In his summing-up, Inglis exhibits a degree of restraint untypical of his earlier polemical works (note the cautious disclaimer at the end): “What we cannot tell is how different the course of history would have been if the founders of religions or great warriors had not been influenced by their dreams. All that can be said is that such dreams have occurred; that the dreamers have felt them to be prophetic; and that in so far as the dream provided the decisive impulse, their historic influence has been staggering.”
1 From the Facebook page of the International Museum of Surgical Science (IMSS), Chicago, Illinois, USA.
2 Brian is still perhaps best known as the presenter of the top-rated Granada Television series of the 1960s, All Our Yesterdays.
3 Reissued in 2012 by White Crow Books, [NLI: The subtitle “A Matter of Chance -- or Synchronicity” reflects the book’s implicit debt to Koestler.]
5 This sentence almost implies that proper psychical research requires an abandonment of skeptical beliefs.
6 Brian’s critics in the skeptical community in the USA (James Randi and others) never tire of pointing out that experts in one field can be duped in another.
7 “Telling the story when [Kekulé] did—as an elder statesman, at a gathering in his honour—indicated that he was anxious for it to be taken seriously.”
8 Although Inglis does not say so outright, Kipling's book was clearly an end-of-life text, just as “The Power of Dreams” was. Brian's thoughts on death may have echoed those of Koestler in his suicide letter: “(...) I am leaving their company in a peaceful frame of mind, with some timid hopes for a de-personalised after-life beyond due confines of space, time and matter and beyond the limits of our comprehension. This “oceanic feeling” has often sustained me at difficult moments, and does so now, while I am writing this.”
9 In these pages, we find fewer references to nightmares or useless recurrent dreams of the type that beset the author of the present review (missing a connecting flight by a split second, endlessly rehashing final examinations at university), inspired by far more prosaic considerations—professional deadlines and travel-related stress—and generating no creative insights whatsoever. As Brian admits, “[R]acing drivers must often dream of crashing.”
10 Note how Inglis warms to this theme: “‘Unscientific’ though it is considered to be, the public is more likely to be impressed by a few anecdotal examples of direct ‘hits’ than by bleak statistics.”
"The Power of Prose"