A friend of mine tasked me with writing an article about the pseudoscientific beliefs behind the pineal gland. I will likely write other articles in the same vein, because medical science has been heavily borrowed from by pseudoscientific practitioners.
So, here are the facts: the pineal gland is a pea-sized, pine-cone shaped organ located in the brains of vertebrates. It produces melatonin, which helps to regulate sleeping patterns. There you go: that’s what it does. So where is there room for anything more in a pea-sized organ?
It turns out that the pineal gland has an interesting evolutionary history. It is closely associated with the parietal eye, also known as the third eye, in reptiles and fish. It is likely that our common evolutionary ancestors possessed this trait. The parietal eye is connected to another organ called the epiphysis (called the pineal gland if it is mostly endocrine). In some species, the parietal eye (or third eye) is photoreceptive. In other words, it detects light. Therefore, it provides an environmental basis for regulation of sleep patterns and body heat.
Rene Descartes (of “I think therefore I am” fame)believed that the pineal gland controlled sensation, imagination and memory, as well as causation of bodily movements. Descartes believed that humans were of two ingredients: a body and a soul. And in describing the pineal gland, Descartes discussed the “pattern in which the animal spirits flow from the pineal gland.” As explained in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy :
“He explained perception as follows. The nerves are hollow tubes filled with animal spirits. They also contain certain small fibers or threads which stretch from one end to the other. These fibers connect the sense organs with certain small valves in the walls of the ventricles of the brain. When the sensory organs are stimulated, parts of them are set in motion. These parts then begin to pull on the small fibers in the nerves, with the result that the valves with which these fibers are connected are pulled open, some of the animal spirits in the pressurized ventricles of the brain escape, and (because nature abhors a vacuum) a low-pressure image of the sensory stimulus appears on the surface of the pineal gland. It is this image which then “causes sensory perception” of whiteness, tickling, pain, and so on.”
Descartes had plenty to say about the physical end of the body/soul system, but precious little about the spiritual end. But his notions on the “third eye” stayed on the spiritual end, the physical end of the parietal eye unexamined. In the mid-17th century, objections to Descartes’ ideas arose in the scientific community. While his ideas weren’t widely accepted during his life, they were summarily rejected by the scientific community after his death.
It was in the 19th century when Madame Blavatsky began a movement called theosophy, a body of philosophies that were based on mysticism and the occult. Blavatsky tied the idea of the “third eye” to Hindu philosophy. From there, the idea made its way into Buddhist thinking. So if you’re familiar with the mystical idea of the third eye, you’ve picked up on something from modern Buddhist teachings.
So is there anything spiritual about the third eye, and, by extension, the pineal gland? Well, modern science says that everything about a person’s behavior and personality is located in the brain, and the processes behind them are purely physical in nature. But the human mind is ever curious, ever looking for meaning. What happens when scholars of philosophy (as they might call themselves) discover the evolutionary history behind the pineal gland? Answer: a revival.
So when someone talks to you about their pineal gland and its spiritual truths, you’ll know what they’re talking about. People can believe what they want to believe, but science is science, and everything else is… not.