H.P. Lovecraft, DMT, and the mysteries of the pineal gland
Like a lot of people these days, I regularly absorb at least as much information from pop culture as from more exalted sources. And so it was that when I was a teenager, I first heard of the pineal gland — “the mysterious unpaired organ of the brain, the ‘third eye’, the seat of the soul, a ‘calcified vestigial organ with no function’, subject of medical jokes,” as endocrinologist and chronobiologist Joseph Arendt has described it — not in a high school or college biology class but from Stuart Gordon / Brian Yuzna / Dennis Paoli’s movie adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s minor short story “From Beyond.”
Both the movie and the story, the latter of which I read a couple of years after watching the former, tell of a mad scientist who creates a machine that sends out rays or vibrations to stimulate the pineal gland, thus awakening a latent sense that enables people to see monstrous extra-dimensional creatures that always exist in a kind of hyperspace around us. Unfortunately, the machine also allows those creatures to see us. Lovecraft explains the matter as follows:
The waves from that thing are waking a thousand sleeping senses in us; senses which we inherit from aeons of evolution from the state of detached electrons to the state of organic humanity. . . . You have heard of the pineal gland? I laugh at the shallow endocrinologist, fellow-dupe and fellow-parvenu of the Freudian. That gland is the great sense-organ of organs — I have found out. It is like sight in the end, and transmits visual pictures to the brain.
Although Lovecraft was probably working with a semi-satirical intent when he invoked the “third eye” pineal trope, which would have been well known to him because of its prominence in the mystical and esoteric literature of his day, his portrayal of it resonates rather shockingly well with the real-life research results obtained by Dr. Rick Strassman in his DMT experiments from the 1990s. Working at the University of New Mexico with the formal approval of the U.S. government, Strassman injected 60 volunteers with DMT to study its effects on consciousness and discover its possible dangers and therapeutic uses. Among the most startling of its effects was a consistent “encounter” experience in which the subjects came in contact with other-dimensional beings, which they described variously as clowns, elves, angels, demons, aliens, insectoids, and robots.
This is more than just a little interesting, especially given that Strassman organized the book he wrote about his DMT experiments, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, around the guiding hypothesis that the pineal gland may naturally produce DMT and thus be implicated in naturally occurring mystical and near-death visionary experiences, and also in dreams and experiences of alien abduction, entity encounters, and the like. In other words, we won’t be stretching the truth very much, if at all, if we make an imaginative leap and regard this aspect of his work as a kind of real-life, experimental verification of Lovecraft’s “hypothesis” in “From Beyond,” minus most (but not all) of the cosmic-horrific overtones.
Not incidentally, I interviewed Strassman recently for a blog post and book chapter about the pineal gland’s possible role as a locus of the muse experience in creativity. From my personal point of view, the upshot, aside from the inherent mind-blowing fascination of this whole topic, is that Lovecraft just keeps giving and giving from beyond the grave. He somehow ends up involved in some way, major or minor, in all of my ongoing projects and obsessions.
For those who are interested, here’s a trailer for the documentary movie DMT: The Spirit Molecule, released in 2010 as a cinematic accompaniment to Strassman’s book: