Excerpt from DMT: The Spirit Molecule
The Pineal: Meet the Spirit Gland
One of my deepest motivations behind the DMT research was the search for a biological basis of spiritual experience. Much of what I had learned over the years made me wonder if the pineal gland produced DMT during mystical states and other naturally occurring, psychedelic-like experiences. These are ideas I developed before performing the New Mexico research. In chapter 21, I enlarge these hypotheses to incorporate what we discovered during the experiments themselves. In this chapter I will review what we know about the pineal gland. In the next, I will elaborate upon these data to suggest conditions in which the pineal, in its role as a possible spirit gland, might make mind-altering amounts of endogenous DMT.
As a Stanford University undergraduate in the early 1970s I performed laboratory research on the development of the fetal chicken nervous system. I was curious about how a single fertilized cell could result in a fully grown and functioning organism. This was an exciting research field, and I wanted to see how I liked laboratory science. Less nobly, I also believed a research elective would help my chances of getting into medical school. Despite the passion I had for this research, I felt guilty about killing fetal chicks. I had nightmares of chickens chasing me through vague and menacing landscapes. In these dreams, I escaped by lifting myself onto my mother’s washing machine! It also did not seem as if laboratory science would provide me the opportunity to study the topics with which I was increasingly fascinated. While at Stanford, I took classes on sleep and dreams, hypnosis, the psychology of consciousness, physiological psychology, and Buddhism—all cutting-edge material in California universities in those days.
Wanting to sort things out, I went to the student health service and talked with one of their psychiatrists. He recommended I meet James Fadiman, Ph.D., a psychologist who worked at Stanford’s School of Engineering. I called Jim’s secretary, set up an appointment to meet him, and got the confusing directions to the “engineering corner” of the university. After finding my way out of a few wrong turns and blind alleys, I found Jim’s office. He sat with his back to the window, the sun streaming in. I couldn’t see him very clearly due to the glare. The halo effect around his head added to my already moderate anxiety. I knew this would be an important meeting.
To deal with my own nervousness, I began the conversation and asked him what he, a psychologist, was doing in the engineering department. He chuckled and replied, “I teach engineers how to think. They’re smart, no doubt about that, but can they really solve problems imaginatively? How do they approach the creative process? I help them look at situations from different perspectives.”
Little did I know that Jim had worked with Willis Harman, who was administering psychedelic drugs in an attempt to enhance creativity, at a nearby research institute. The published results of this work, over thirty years old, remains the only such data in the literature and showed great potential for stimulating the creative process. I wonder how many of the Stanford engineering students he supervised were in those studies!
Jim leaned forward, and the blinding glare from the sun worsened. He asked, “And what are you doing here?”I told him. My ideas were poorly formed. I was fascinated by psychedelics. I had just started practicing Transcendental Meditation. My coursework was leading me into some very interesting fields. There seemed to be a thread running through it all, but what was it? Where could I look for a unifying factor?Jim sat back and looked thoughtful, or so it seemed—his face was nearly invisible because of the sun’s rays behind him. “You ought to look into the pineal gland,” he said at last. “My wife Dorothy is making a film about the experience of inner light described by mystics. The pineal gland is drawing her in as the metaphysical source of this light, the crowning achievement of many traditions. Maybe it really does generate that light inside our heads.”
“How do you spell ‘pineal’?” I asked, taking notes.
We chatted a little more about my plans after graduation. Our brief meeting ended.
Building upon Jim’s advice, I began investigating what was known about the pineal gland, a tiny organ situated in the middle of the brain. I wrote several papers for classes that school year that began to lay out the broad framework for the theories I later developed. Western and Eastern mystical traditions are replete with descriptions of a blinding bright white light accompanying deep spiritual realization. This “enlightenment” usually is the result of a progression of consciousness through various levels of spiritual, psychological, and ethical development. All mystical traditions describe the process and its stages.In Judaism, for example, consciousness moves through the sefirot, or Kabbalistic centers of spiritual development, the highest being Keter, or Crown. In the Eastern Ayurvedic tradition, these centers are called chakras, and particular experiences likewise accompany the movement of energy through them. The highest chakra is also called the Crown, or the Thousand-Petaled Lotus. In both traditions, the location of this Crown sefira or chakra is the center and top of the skull, anatomically corresponding to the human pineal gland.
We first read about the physical pineal gland in the writings of Herophilus, a third-century B.C. Greek physician from the time of Alexander the Great. Its name comes from the Latin pineus, relating to the pine, pinus. This little organ is thus piniform, or shaped like apinecone, no bigger than the nail of your pinkie finger.
The pineal gland is unique in its solitary status within the brain. All other brain sites are paired, meaning that 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.Interest in the pineal accelerated after it attracted Rene Descartes’s attention. This seventeenth-century French philosopher and mathematician, who said, “I think, therefore I am,” needed a source for those thoughts. Introspection showed him that it was possible to think only one thought at a time. From where in the brain might these unpaired, solitary thoughts arise? Descartes proposed that the pineal, the only singleton organ of the brain, generated thoughts. In addition, Descartes believed the pineal’s location, directly above one of the crucial byways for the cerebrospinal fluid, made this function even more likely.
The ventricles, hollow cavities deep within the brain, produce cerebrospinal fluid. This clear, salty, protein-rich fluid provides cushioning for the brain, protecting it from sudden jolts and bumps. It also carries nutrients to, and waste products away from, deep brain tissue.
In Descartes’s time, the ebb and flow of the cerebrospinal fluid through the ventricles seemed perfectly suited for the corresponding movement of thoughts. If the pineal gland “secreted” thoughts into the cerebrospinal fluid, what better means for the “stream of consciousness” to make its way to the rest of the brain?
Descartes also had a deeply spiritual side. He believed that thinking, or the human imagination, was basically a spiritual phenomenon made possible by our divine nature, what we share with God. That is, our thoughts are expressions of, and proof for the existence of, our soul. Descartes believed that the pineal gland played an essential role in the expression of the soul:
Although the soul is joined with the entire body, there is one part of the body [the pineal] in which it exercises its function more than elsewhere. . . . [The pineal] is so suspended between the passages containing the animal spirits [guiding reason and carrying sensation and movement] that it can be moved by them . . . ; and it carries this motion on to the soul. . . . Then conversely, the bodily machine is so constituted that whenever the gland is moved in one way or another by the soul, or for that matter by any other cause, it pushes the animal spirits which surround it to the pores of the brain.
Descartes thus proposed that the pineal gland somehow was the “seat of the soul,” the intermediary between the spiritual and physical. The body and the spirit met there, each affecting the other, and the repercussions extended in both directions.
How close to the truth was Descartes? What do we know now about the biology of the pineal gland? Can we relate this biology to the nature of spirit?
Published: December 1, 2000
14 B&W illustrations