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The muse and the pineal gland

For over a month I’ve been pounding away at the third installment in my “Theology, Psychology, Neurology” series of articles over at Demon Muse. It will look at the third element in the series title by considering several possible biological locations of the muse experience.

The section on the pineal gland proved unexpectedly slippery to write. About five minutes ago I think I finally finished knocking it out after six weeks of work, during which its proper shape proved damnably difficult to intuit. To detoxify and decompress my brain, I thought I’d air a portion of it here before moving on to write the other parts, which will talk about 1) Stan Gooch’s positing of the cerebellum as the physical location of the unconscious mind, the muse experience, and paranormal manifestations, and 2) the modern school of “creative brain” research with its heavy-duty neurological focus, as explored by Alice Flaherty in The Midnight Disease, Michael Persinger in his research with temporal lobe stimulation and the experience of a “sensed presence,” Shelly Carson in her new book Your Creative Brain, and more.

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The pineal gland is a pea-sized structure located deep within the brain. In the mid-20th century it was discovered to help regulate our circadian sleep/wake cycle by secreting melatonin. Prior to that, nobody knew what it really did, but speculation ran rampant for over two millennia. In the 4th century B.C.E., the Greek physician Herophilus examined the pineal while dissecting corpses and speculated that it was involved in the functioning of the soul. Two thousand years later, the 17th-century philosopher Descartes famously declared it “the seat of the soul,” the physical point where mind and matter are joined together, and from whence the former exercises control over the latter.

Two centuries after that, the first real scientific findings about the pineal gland’s nature and function had the ironic effect of providing fuel for further mystical and metaphysical speculation. Based on the observation that we share this organ with other animals, including not just mammals but creatures of an older evolutionary age, such as amphibians and lizards, whose pineal gland is linked to a functional third eye called the dorsal or parietal eye that’s located on top of the head between the two main eyes, several scientists in the late-19th century began to conjecture that the human pineal gland is a vestigial dorsal eye or third eye of its own, a relic of our phylogenetic history. This was immediately pounced upon by esoteric philosophers, including, most notably, Madame Blavatsky, the formidable head of the Theosophical movement, as scientific evidence of the reality of the mystical third eye or “Eye of Shiva.” Today the idea of the pineal gland as a vestigial eye is an accepted part of evolutionary biology, even as members of the Theosophical Society continue to sound their mystical note:

The mind and senses are paths for occult energies that work through various psychophysical centers or chakras, among the highest of which is the pineal gland. These centers continue to develop as we evolve towards spirit. So while the third eye or pineal gland has certain physiological activities in conjunction with the pituitary gland—together they regulate the rhythms of metabolism and growth—it is also the physical organ of intuition, inspiration, spiritual vision, and divine thought.

So what is it about this unassuming, deeply buried gland that has inspired such interest and speculation? Medical doctor and psychiatrist Rick Strassman explains the matter concisely in his groundbreaking book DMT: The Spirit Molecule:

The pineal gland is unique in its solitary status within the brain. All other brain sites are paired, meaning they have left and right counterparts; for example, there are left and right frontal lobes and left and right temporal lobes. As the only unpaired organ deep within the brain, the pineal gland remained an anatomical curiosity for nearly two thousand years. No one in the West had any idea what its function was.

Endocrinologist and chronobiologist Josephine Arendt gets at the same thing when she begins her Melatonin and the Mammalian Pineal Gland by referring rather lyrically to “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.” The New World Encyclopedia likewise conveys much the same point: “The pineal gland was the last endocrine gland to have its function discovered. This combination led to its being a ‘mystery’ gland with myth, superstition, and even metaphysical theories surrounding its perceived function.”

Most pointedly for our own specific interests, in the 1990s the pineal gland was implicated in fascinating research involving the psychedelic substance DMT and its tendency to produce an experience of coming into contact with angels, demons, aliens, and other paranormal presences with a distinct first-cousin relationship to the muse, daimon, and genius.

H.P. Lovecraft, DMT, and the mysteries of the pineal gland

pineal_glandLike 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: