Identified in 300 BCE by the Greek physician Herophilos as the brain’s only unpaired organ, the pineal gland has long been a source of mystery and speculation. Galen, another Greek physician and philosopher, discussed its role as a valve regulating the flow of ‘psychic pneuma’. This view informed René Descartes, who in the 17th century situated the soul (for him, the mind) precisely in this tiny mid-brain structure, which he imagined to be something of a thought valve; he called it ‘the seat of the soul’.
It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that scientists recognised the pineal as an endocrine organ – an important hub at night for converting the neurotransmitter serotonin, essential for higher cognitive processes, into the hormone melatonin, which plays a crucial role in activating sleep cycles. Finally, in the late 1980s, the neurochemist James Callaway proposed that pineal melatonin is converted into DMT (along with pinoline and 5-MeO-DMT) just before the onset of REM (rapid eye-movement) sleep, when we dream. Were such endogenous, psychoactive molecules literally fuelling our dreams?
Such questions tantalised [the psychiatrist Rick] Strassman, prompting him to pursue the phantom of the ‘psychedelic pineal gland’. He speculated that the pineal might excrete large quantities of DMT during extremely stressful life episodes, notably in the events of birth and death. He speculated that the gland’s central position in the brain, within the epithalamus, could allow for DMT secretion directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, impacting visual and auditory pathways. Absorbing the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, he wondered whether, when we die (or indeed, have near-death experiences), the life force could be leaving the body through the pineal gland. Was DMT like the floodwaters carrying the soul into the liminal phase (or bardo) between life and life, as depicted in The Tibetan Book of the Dead? He proposed that, functioning like a spirit antenna, ‘pineal DMT release at forty-nine days after conception marks the entrance of the spirit into the fetus’. The impact of these speculations were felt in popular esoteric (spiritualist) circles and within Strassman’s Zen Buddhist community in Northern California, where he was ordained as a lay member until he was censured and subsequently exited in the late 1990s. [Continue reading…]