Scientists have been mystified by the pineal gland for centuries. As the brain and central nervous and endocrine systems were progressively unravelled by the anatomists, physiologists and biochemists, the pineal gland resolutely refused to yield up its secrets. Until recently the scientific community regarded it as having no function in man, being but a vestigial remnant from an earlier stage in evolution. However, in the last few years interest in the gland has reached a climax when no fewer than ten national and international conferences devoted entirely to unravelling the secrets of the mysterious pineal have been held around the world.
Location and description
Physically, the pineal is perhaps the smallest organ of the body. Such a minute structure has rarely, if ever, caused so much curiosity and commotion. It is a tiny grey white structure approximately ¼ inch long, weighing about 100 milligrams, and shaped like a pine-cone. It is located directly at the top of the spinal cord within the brain at the level where the head and neck are joined. It lies attached to the roof of the third ventricle (fluid filled canal) of the brain directly in line with the point between the eyebrows. It is the only structure in the brain, apart from the pituitary gland, which is not bilaterally symmetrical, lying right in the midline. This means that, except for these two glands, the two halves of the brain when it has been cut from front to back, are mirror images of each other, with each structure being duplicated, one for each half.
It is interesting to trace the scientific history of the pineal gland to the present day. The ancients attached great significance to this tiny structure. The Greek anatomist Herophilis, in the 4th century B.C. called the gland ‘a sphincter which regulates the flow of thought’. This suggests that he was well aware that the pineal functions as a transducer between the mental and physical realms. The early Latin anatomists termed the pineal ‘the master gland’ indicating that they knew the pineal exerts a higher control over the endocrine system, including the pituitary gland. Up until very recently, modern endocrinologists have considered the pituitary to be the highest controlling gland of all the other endocrine glands of the body. The Latins termed the pineal the ‘glandula superior’ in distinction to the pituitary which they termed ‘glandula inferior’. They clearly designated the pineal to be a ‘gland’, even though it was not until 1958 that modern researchers isolated melatonin from the pineal to prove conclusively that it was a glandular structure.
In 1886 two micro anatomists, H.W. De Graff and E. Baldwin Spencer, independently discovered that the pineal is a rudimentary eye, possessing all the essential features of the external eyes with pigmented, retinal cells surrounding an inner chamber filled with a globular lens like mass. Subsequent research has proved that the gland actually responds to environmental light, both directly and via the nervous pathways from the external eyes. *1 It is surely beyond a coincidence that the yogic texts of India and the mystical traditions throughout the ages have spoken of the ‘eye of intuition’ and the ‘third eye’ when referring to the pineal gland.
In recent years, two hormones, melatonin and serotonin, have been isolated from the pineal. The hormone melatonin (Greek for darkness, constricting) was isolated from the pineal gland in 1958 by Aaron B. Learner, an American dermatologist working at Yale Medical School (USA). This substance has been found to be responsible for the ability of certain frogs and fish to change colour in response to varying environmental light conditions and also to changes in emotional states such as anger and fear. It has subsequently been found to play a profound role in the onset of puberty and ongoing sexual development in human beings. It is found that the size and functional capacity of the pineal gland diminishes as children enter the pubertal years. The gland appears to hold back the onset of sexual development, and the release of this control by the pineal is the stimulus for the release of the pituitary’s sexual hormones which bring about the awakening of the reproductive systems in the male and female, and precipitate the adoption of a sexual role in life.
The second hormone isolated from the pineal was serotonin. Daniel Freeman, a psychiatrist, also at Yale University, isolated this substance from the tissues of the brain, finding its greatest concentration in the pineal gland and the nearby raphe cells of the nuclei of the midbrain. The pineal appears to be the reservoir of serotonin for the brain, while the raphe cells are responsible for the distribution of the hormone to other areas of the brain via long extensions or axons. These axons reach out to many areas of the brain and control the firing of other cells in those areas.
The next contribution to the pineal puzzle came when two workers at the National Institute of Health (USA), Axelrod and Weissbach, found that serotonin is the precursor of melatonin. They found that melatonin is produced from serotonin in the pineal gland by a simple chemical pathway. *2
The central role of serotonin was established a short time after the accidental discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25). Minute quantities of this substance, were found to cause profound alterations in consciousness, inducing states ranging from deeply felt religious and mystical experiences to paranoia and schizophrenia. The LSD-25 molecule was found to be structurally very similar to the serotonin molecule, so much so that it is able to antagonise or block the actions of serotonin in the brain by occupying the receptor sites where serotonin normally acts. Gaddum of Edinburgh University discovered that the alterations in consciousness induced by LSD-25 are not due to a direct effect on the brain tissues by that drug, but rather that LSD-25 deprives the brain of serotonin by blocking off its sites of action.
This means that the brain’s levels of serotonin are responsible for maintenance of rational thought and that alteration in the concentration of serotonin in the brain, such as induced by LSD-25, are responsible for the unhinging of ‘normal reality’.
This means that the brain’s levels of serotonin profound for they show that the pineal gland is the physical medium which regulates the chemistry of altered states of consciousness. It also seems that our sexual identity and our state of consciousness are intimately related to one another. It is clear that man is imprisoned in his mundane, everyday state of consciousness. He is locked up far more effectively than the prisoner who is incarcerated in chains or behind bars. Such a prisoner is only experiencing the imprisonment of his body, and he is very aware of his condition. However, the human being is far more effectively bound and tied. His very consciousness is held prisoner. It is so effectively harnessed that he cannot even perceive the possibility of higher awareness and experience. The ropes which prevent his perception of a reality in which he is infinite seem to be the levels of serotonin within his own brain tissues!
Before the regression of the pineal gland and the subsequent onset of puberty, children have ready access to a far more diverse range of conscious experience than adult human beings. In fact, many children quite effortlessly possess many of the ‘siddhis’ or psychic powers associated with the awakening of ajna chakra. Children are often highly intuitive, can see into the future or know what their parents are thinking. They are uncanny in their ability to see the reality behind appearances- so much so that it is very difficult to deceive or lie to a child. When the Israeli psychic Uri Geller became famous throughout the world by demonstrating his psychokinetic abilities such as bending forks by ‘thought power’ and stopping the watches and clocks of his television audiences, a number of parents became alarmed because their children began to perform the same feats at home. Children play in a multidimensional world of imaginary friends and places which is largely inaccessible to their parents. They do so because their large functional pineal glands are converting serotonin to melatonin. The effect of this is twofold. Firstly, the lowered serotonin levels give them access to the other states of awareness. Secondly, the high concentration of melatonin holds the powerful influences of the pituitary gland at bay, delaying the onset of puberty. Then at about the age of seven or eight years, the pineal’s function begins to diminish and the pituitary hormones are progressively released, bringing the reproductive system to maturity. Simultaneously with this awakening of the reproductive system, the child is subject to great emotional and mental turmoil as his psyche adjusts to the new sexual role. With the diminished production of melatonin, there is a progressive build up of brain serotonin concentrations and a closing off of the doors into the child’s expanded world of intuitive perception, imagination and play. Tragically, these doors often remain closed for the rest of his life, and the child within him is rarely, if ever, glimpsed again.
However, we need not be prisoners of our own brain biochemistry at all. We can expand our state of consciousness by reactivating the pineal gland, awakening the ajna chakra, opening the third eye -they are all the same process. In this way we regain contact with the child within while simultaneously fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of adult life. Then work becomes play and life a game, rather than the serious and depressing business it has become for many people today.
The science of kundalini yoga progressively re-channels the energy back upwards to its source. When the consciousness is in mooladhara, the possibility of higher awareness is forgotten and we become locked within the mundane state of awareness characteristic of the adult world. In this state, the highest bliss attainable is the momentary and fleeting loss of identity experienced in the climax of the orgasm in sexual union. This is a most powerful experience for a person locked within mundane consciousness, and that is why it is so highly valued and sought after. In fact, this experience gives man and woman the most transitory glimpse of the never ending cosmic bliss which is attained when the same kundalini shakti pierces the sahasrara at the culmination of yoga sadhana. This experience is even described in the tantras in very sexual terms, so that we will have some idea of its nature and intensity. It is described there as the eternal union of Shiva and Shakti, consciousness and energy. This is sahasrara, and this is the goal which yogis seek. It involves a progressive loss of the masculine or feminine sexual role, with the total reorganisation of the endocrine and nervous systems, and the realisation of both elements within the yogi’s body and psyche. This is the symbolic meaning behind the tantric art of India in which Lord Shiva and Lord Krishna are depicted in a very beautiful childlike way, with half masculine and half feminine characteristics. It is a symbolical means of presenting this truth and symbolises that they are ever in cosmic union.
These are the implications of the current pineal gland research. It seems that the scientists and the yogis will at last meet and understand one another face to face on either side of the window of the ajna chakra/pineal gland complex. It is only fitting that this gland, which Rene Descartes, the 16th century French philosopher, termed ‘the seat of the rational soul’ should be the meeting place in which rational and mystical thought once more coalesce and merge. It was Descartes who created the body-mind dichotomy in western thought under which science and philosophy have laboured for the past 400 years. The ajna chakra is the doorway to higher consciousness, and the scientists are now prying open this door.
*1. J. Bleibtreu, ‘The Parable of the Beast‘, Paladin, 1976.
*2. R.J. Wartman & J. Axelrod, “The Pineal Gland” ‘Scientific American’.
*3. B.L. Jacobs, “Seratonin: The Crucial Substance that Turns Dreams On and Off”, ‘Psychology Today’, March 1976.