Experiencing the invisible polity
Trance in early modern Scotland
in The supernatural in early modern Scotland
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This chapter uses modern medical, psychiatric and anthropological literature to interrogate reports of dissociative or other-worldly experiences in early modern Scotland. It shows that some people experienced trance, and argues that an understanding of how or why they did so enables us to uncover information about their lives that would otherwise go unnoticed. It argues that trance was experienced as a dissociative phenomenon that might be voluntary or involuntary. Some trances were linked to trauma, but others were apparently non-pathological and might also develop naturally in fantasy-prone individuals. Trances occurred in different modalities and might be of long or short duration, with symptoms ranging from the mild to the dramatic. One particularly important question is the way in which individuals might exercise control over their trances. Some people’s trances were clearly involuntary, but some ‘seers’ were able to induce trances deliberately and to use them for specific purposes like healing and divination.

The chapter concludes that neurobiological brain functions worked together with social and cultural context to create very real visionary experiences. The medical, psychiatric and anthropological literature helps us to understand the intensity of trance symptoms that a number of early modern people experienced. This means it is no longer tenable to disregard their experiences as superstitious nonsense, or even to confine ourselves to psychoanalytical interpretations. These trances form a vivid case-study of the relationship between the cultural and the neurobiological aspects of the human condition.

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