Comedian, UFC commentator, and podcaster Joe Rogan talked about DMT on the Opie & Anthony show in 2007. His descriptions of the craziness of DMT were well-received. A clip of the enthusiastic spiel was uploaded to YouTube, and it currently has over 4 million views. News about DMT was reaching far and wide. However, so too were some misconceptions about the compound, uncritically repeated by Rogan. But, to his credit, he was admittedly a bit drunk. And on his later podcasts, he has taken a more tentative view when aware of what we know, and what we don’t know. During the Opie & Anthony show, Rogan responds to a caller who asks about when he and fellow comedian Doug Stanhope were filming for The Man Show and were experimenting with some drug. Rogan says that’s it DMT and:
It’s produced by your pineal gland. It’s actually a gland that’s in the centre of the brain. It’s the craziest drug ever. It’s the most potent psychedelic known to man. But the craziest thing about it is it’s natural. And your brain produces it every night as you sleep. The time you’re in heavy REM sleep and right before death, your brain pumps out heavy doses of dimethyltryptamine…When you’re in heavy REM sleep, you’re going through a psychedelic trip. Very few people know about this. But it’s been documented.
The misconception that the pineal gland, as a matter of fact, produces DMT, and does so during dreaming and before death, has been popularised and is now part of the chemical’s folklore. In 1983, alternative medicine ‘guru’ Andrew Weil gave a talk titled ‘Psychoactive Drugs Throughout Human History’ at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and said, “Dimethyltryptamine…is almost certainly made by the pineal gland in the brain.” That same year, Albert Most, a proponent of the use of Bufo alvarius toad venom (which contains 5-MeO-DMT), published his booklet Eros and the Pineal: The Layman’s Guide to Cerebral Solitaire. In it, Most stated that the pineal gland could transform serotonin into 5-MeO-DMT in a two-step process (although he did not provide any evidence to support this claim). The notion that the pineal gland was producing hallucinogenic compounds seems to have started in the 80s, but it became a much more popular idea once it could spread on the internet, and following the publication of Dr Rick Strassman’s DMT book, as well as Rogan’s radio rant.
Rogan mentioned that the connection between DMT and dreaming has been “documented”. It’s true that speculations about DMT’s role in dreaming have been documented. Strassman expressed this idea in the DMT: The Spirit Molecule book. But his speculations have often been misconstrued as facts. I believe this is partly due to what I call a ‘wow bias’. This is the bias of tending to more easily latch onto an idea if it elicits that wow response. Something that is a ‘game changer’ is always attractive and fun to believe. The scintillating hypothesis in question may later become a theory, with the supporting evidence to make it so, but currently, we don’t know enough to make any hard and fast conclusions.
The human tendency of apophenia or ‘patternicity’ also seems to be at play in the popularisation of these misconceptions. This refers to people’s pattern-seeking tendency – of being hard-wired to ‘connect the dots’, as it were. This is often used to explain why people believe in conspiracy theories. We will come back to this human tendency to seek out connections when there may in fact not be any.
Strassman’s DMT book was a riveting read for many because of the fascinating speculations about DMT included. This book was not, therefore, just a recounting of the experiment, its results, and various observations. It also included Strassman’s own interpretation of the DMT experience, drawing on Tibetan Buddhism, the philosophy of Rene Descartes, dreams, near-death experiences (NDEs) and mystical states.
The Third Eye
Strassman suggests that DMT is produced in a particular part of the brain:
The most general hypothesis is that the pineal gland produces psychedelic amounts of DMT at extraordinary times in our lives.
Some of these occasions include deep meditation, psychosis, fetal development, birth, death, near-death experiences, UFO abduction experiences, and dreams. Strassman is sometimes (wrongly) blamed for promoting the myth that DMT is produced by the human pineal gland. This is unfair. As he stresses:
I did my best in the DMT book to differentiate between what is known, and what I was conjecturing about (based upon what is known), regarding certain aspects of DMT dynamics. However, it’s amazing how ineffective my efforts seem to have been. So many people write me, or write elsewhere, about DMT, and the pineal, assuming that the things I conjecture about are true. When I was writing the book, I thought I was clear enough, and repeating myself would have gotten tedious.
Nonetheless, Strassman notes how little we know about this tiny organ situated in the centre of the brain, “where it seems to have the best seat in the house,” as he puts it. He opens the chapter ‘The Pineal: Meet the Spirit Gland’ by saying that one of his “deepest motivations behind the DMT research was the search for a biological basis of spiritual experience.” Then Strassman emphasises the “rich metaphysical history” of the pineal gland.
Both Eastern and Western mystical traditions have attached great importance to the ‘third eye’. In the Hindu tradition, Ajna (or ‘third eye chakra’) is the sixth chakra (energy point) in the subtle (or energetic/non-physical) body. There are many chakras, but seven are considered to be the most important. The Ajna chakra is located directly behind the centre of the forehead, which is also where the pineal gland sits. Activating Ajna is said to result in deep insight, intuition, and even psychic powers (or siddhis) such as telepathy and clairvoyance. The bindi – the red dot painted on the centre of the foreheads of mainly Hindu and Jain women – is associated with Ajna, and in turn, the third eye. In Buddhist art and culture, the Urna is a spiral or circular dot placed on the forehead of Buddhist images. It too is associated with the third eye – the inner eye or the eye of wisdom.
In Taoism and many Chinese religious sects, such as Chan (the Chinese ancestor of Japanese Zen Buddhism), ‘third eye training’ involves focusing one’s attention on the point between eyebrows and the eyes. In Hinduism, the third eye is seen in depictions of Shiva – ‘the transformer’ and one of the principal deities of the religion. In later Western esoteric traditions, the third eye is also given great importance. H.P. Blavatsky, a Russian occultist who co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, wrote that the third eye is associated with the pineal gland. According to her writings, humans used to have an actual third eye at the back of the head with a physical and spiritual function. But over time, this eye atrophied and sunk into what is today known as the pineal gland.
Long before any of the scientific discoveries about the pineal gland, philosophers and physicians were speculating about its function. In antiquity, Galen (ca. 130-ca. 210 CE), a prominent Greek physician, wrote about this organ. He said its name (Greek: konarion) is derived from the fact its shape and size resembles the nuts found in the stone pine cone. The organ was first referred to as the pineal gland in the 1680s, from the French pineal (which literally means ‘like a pine cone’), which is itself derived from the Latin pinea (pine cone). In Galen’s anatomical work On the usefulness of the parts of the body, Galen rejected a view circulating at the time, postulating that the pineal gland regulates the flow of ‘psychic pneuma’ in the brain. Psychic pneuma is an airy or vaporous substance which he described as “the fine instrument of the soul”.
During the Renaissance, Italian anatomist Niccolo Massa discovered that the ventricles in the brain are not filled with some vaporous spirit, but with fluid (cerebrospinal fluid). Meanwhile, Dutch anatomist Andreas Vesalius, like Galen, rejected the theory that the pineal gland can regulate the flow of spirits in the ventricles. But this view that Galen and others went to great lengths to refute would later be adopted – albeit altered – by French philosopher Rene Descartes. In formulating his hypothesis, Strassman highlights the philosophy of Descartes, who discusses the pineal gland in his works Dioptrics (1637), Treatise of Man (published posthumously in 1662), and Passions of the Soul (1649). First, it is important to understand Descartes’ conception of the human body and soul in order to properly grasp his ideas about the pineal gland.
The Cartesian View of the Pineal Gland
Descartes made a clear distinction between the body and soul as different substances. This philosophy is known as ‘mind-body dualism’. The mind and body have distinct natures – the body is extended and non-thinking, while the mind is non-extended and thinking. Descartes clarified this distinction and his reasoning for his conclusion in his most well-known work Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).
In Treatise of Man, he described the body as “nothing but a statue or machine made of earth”. The way that the body works could be explained in a completely mechanical way. Descartes’ mechanistic view of nature was hugely influential in Western philosophy and science. In scholastic philosophy, many bodily activities and functions were explained by invoking the soul. But Descartes believed this was unnecessary. He stressed that the body behaves like a machine that is made up of clockwork mechanisms. But because of his religious convictions, he did unequivocally believe in the existence of the soul (which is more or less the same thing as the mind for him). In his view, it was a totally different substance from the body, and so could exist without it.
But even though Descartes makes this clear-cut distinction between mind and body, the non-material and the material, it is obvious that both (however you define them) interact with each other. The thought of wanting to do something makes me move my body in some way to make it happen. This is known as the ‘mind-body problem’: how can two substances with completely different natures causally interact with each other? How can a mind, which is non-extended and thinking, affect the body, which is extended and non-thinking? Descartes’ attempt at resolving this issue hinges on his thoughts about the pineal gland.
First, it is worth underscoring Descartes’ mistaken assumptions about the pineal gland (mistaken not just by our current standards, but also in light of what was known at the time). Descartes thought that the pineal gland was suspended in the middle of the ventricles. Which it isn’t, as Galen had already pointed out. In addition, Descartes thought the pineal gland was full of animal spirits (described as “a very fine wind, or rather a very lively and pure flame”); but as Massa had already discovered a century earlier, there was no air-like substance to be found. Descartes said that these animal spirits were brought to the pineal gland by the small arteries which surround it. However, Galen had already demonstrated that the pineal gland is surrounded by veins, not arteries. Nevertheless, he argued that this gland is where mind (or soul) and body meet.
Animal spirits flow from the pineal gland and are directed into different nerve pathways by the different movements of the gland. Descartes provides a detailed mechanistic explanation of how this can result in bodily movements, perception, imagination, and memory. Essentially, mind-body causality is mediated by these animal spirits. Descartes said:
The machine of the body is so formed that from the simple fact that this gland is diversely moved by the soul, or by such other cause, whatever it is, it thrusts the spirits which surround it towards the pores of the brain, which conduct them by nerves into the muscles by which means it causes them to move the limbs.
It is an explanation fraught with presumptions (i.e. “the simple fact”) and such vagueness (i.e. “or by such other cause, whatever it is”) that it is difficult to find it credible. Another issue with this whole framework, as already mentioned, is that there is no evidence of these so-called animal spirits in the brain. But even if they did exist, what kind of substance are they? If they’re non-physical in nature, then we still have the mind-body problem to deal with. And this is also the case if animal spirits are physical, or of a completely different, unknown substance altogether. While it may be possible that two distinct substances can interact with each other, Descartes – or anyone for that matter – cannot offer a satisfying explanation for how they do so. This difficulty in bridging the gap between the physical realm and the so-called non-physical realm warrants further discussion.
But Strassman is as drawn to the pineal gland as Descartes was, in terms of its supposed essential role in human consciousness. Descartes wrote in Dioptrics:
My view is that this gland is the principal seat of the soul, and the place in which all our thoughts are formed. The reason I believe this is that I cannot find any part of the brain, except this, which is not double. Since we see only one thing with two eyes, and hear only one voice with two ears, and in short have never more than one thought at a time, it must necessarily be the case that the impressions which enter by the two eyes or by the two ears, and so on, unite with each other in some part of the body before being considered by the soul. Now it is impossible to find any such place in the whole head except this gland; moreover it is situated in the most suitable possible place for this purpose, in the middle of all the concavities…
In Passions of the Soul, Descartes noted that the soul is joined to the whole of the body, but added:
…nevertheless there is a certain part of the body where it exercises its functions more particularly than in all the others. […] The part of the body in which the soul directly exercises its functions is not the heart at all, or the whole of the brain. It is rather the innermost part of the brain, which is a certain very small gland situated in the middle of the brain’s substance.
Strassman also suggested that the pineal gland could be the “seat of the soul”. But unlike Descartes, he hypothesises that it is DMT that is the mediator between the physical and spiritual worlds; hence why he coined DMT as the ‘spirit molecule’. All of these speculations beg the question: how much do we really know about the pineal gland? And what evidence is there that it produces DMT?
The Pine Cone-Shaped Organ
Even though this gland has been known about since antiquity, its function in humans is still poorly understood. What we do know is that in diurnal and nocturnal vertebrates, it produces and releases the hormone melatonin in a rhythmic manner, during the night. The pineal gland converts tryptophan – an amino acid – into serotonin, and then into melatonin in a two-step process. From experiments on rats in the 1960s, it has been demonstrated that melatonin synthesis is low when animals are exposed to light, and high in darkness. Many direct and indirect observations show that the release of melatonin is tied to sleep. The daily onset of melatonin secretion is correlated with the onset of nocturnal sleepiness. Since melatonin production responds to light, if you live in the northern hemisphere, during the winter months your body may produce it at higher than normal levels. This change has been linked to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or ‘winter depression’ as it is also known.
Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University found that the circadian rhythm becomes disturbed in patients with SAD symptoms. (The circadian rhythm is the internal body clock – a 24-hour cycle of physiological processes that tells our bodies when to sleep and rise). The authors noted that the disturbance is similar to persistent jet lag. Patients who were ‘night owls’ had misaligned rhythms that responded best to taking low-dose melatonin in the afternoon or evening, while ‘morning larks’ experienced the most anti-depressant effects by taking a low dose of melatonin in the morning. This melatonin treatment didn’t cause drowsiness because the dose was lower than what is usually taken at bedtime to induce sleepiness.
Thus, it seems that the primary function of the pineal gland is modulating sleep patterns. Studies have revealed that endogenous melatonin is correlated with the decrease in body temperature that happens during sleep. It has been suggested that a rapid decrease in core body temperature increases the chances of sleep onset, and may also make it easier to enter into the deeper stages of sleep. It hasn’t been firmly established to what extent body temperature affects sleepiness itself, but some evidence supports the notion. For example, having a naturally elevated body temperature may be linked to insomnia. In addition, being too hot or too cold can mess with your internal body temperature, making it a challenge to fall asleep or stay asleep. Moreover, exercising before going to sleep, or soon before, also makes it difficult to fall asleep. This is believed to be because it raises your body temperature (as well as your heart rate).
In a broader context, it’s interesting to consider the pineal gland from an evolutionary perspective. Firstly, let’s consider why we sleep in the first place. One possibility is that sleep has adaptive value because it involves a drop in metabolism by up to 10%, which would have been useful in our evolutionary past when our ancestors would struggle to find enough food to sustain keep them alive long enough to reproduce. Having a long stretch of time when less energy in the body is being used would allow a creature to save energy for eating, mating, and other activities which help the organism to survive. This might explain why many animals sleep at night, rather than during the day. Nighttime is colder, so warm-blooded animals would have to use up more energy to stay warm if they were awake. This is known as the ‘hibernation theory’ of sleep (Webb, 1974) and it could shed light on why some animals sleep longer than others. Smaller animals need to conserve more energy because their metabolisms are higher, which it’s beneficial for them to sleep more.
In evolutionary biology, there’s a concept known as exaptation: a shift in the function of a trait during evolution. A trait can evolve to serve one specific function, but over time it may come to serve another function. Sleep may have originally evolved to conserve energy and stop animals from moving about and alerting their presence to predators. But over millions of years, other functions have been added to this period of sleep. One critical process that takes place during sleep is the consolidation of memories.
Comparisons with other species are also quite revealing. In humans, light-sensitive nerve cells in the retina detect light, which eventually travels to the pineal gland and affects melatonin production. Many different species have a parietal eye (also known as a third eye) which itself is light sensitive. It sits on top of the head and sends impulses to the pineal gland, which differ depending on if it’s day or night. Like in humans, this third eye regulates the sleep-wake cycle. The tuatara, a lizard-like reptile, has a parietal eye with a small lens, cornea, and retina. Most lizards, frogs, and lampreys – and some species of fish – have parietal eyes. However, while the parietal eye is photoreceptive, it cannot actually ‘see’ (it does not form images) – even in the tuatara, which has a well-developed parietal eye.
All species that have a parietal eye are ‘cold-blooded’ or ectothermic (an animal whose regulation of body temperature depends on the environment, from external sources such as sunlight or a heated rock surface). Our pre-mammalian ancestors had a parietal eye but it was lost during the evolutionary towards the mammalian form. We can trace the evolution of the pineal gland by looking at fossil evidence; we can see that our pre-mammalian ancestors had a pineal foramen, a tube that pierces the roof of the skull, which is there for the parietal eye. What’s interesting is that experiments on lizards have demonstrated that removing their parietal eye affects their thermoregulation, or ability to regulate their body temperature. Scientists believe that the parietal eye in our pre-mammalian ancestors had the same function.
Researchers have found that the pineal foramen was present in most pre-mammalian therapsids (a group of animals including mammals’ early ancestors) before 260 million years ago. After this time, the pineal foramen disappeared in two evolutionary lineages. One of them, the cynodonts (which gave rise to mammals), completely lost their pineal foramen 246 million years ago. During this time, in South Africa, where these fossils were found, the contrast between seasons was much more pronounced than today. Thus, it has been suggested that cold-blooded animals had a parietal eye to help regulate their body temperature during this time. Experts in the field postulate that when our ancestors lost the pineal foramen around this time, it was because the parietal eye was no longer needed for survival. This was when animals transitioned from being cold-blooded to ‘warm-blooded’ or endothermic (animals which maintain a constant body temperature, regardless of their environment).
More evidence is needed to bolster this picture on how the pineal gland evolved. Another interesting theory has been proposed by Dr David Klein, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Klein claims that the pineal gland evolved, albeit in an indirect way, to improve vision. According to his theory, melatonin was just a by-product, created in the eye’s cells when toxic substances were rendered harmless. But then, around 500 million years ago, our evolutionary ancestors relied on melatonin as a signal to tell them it was dark outside. So the need for more melatonin grew. And as more melatonin was being produced, the pineal gland evolved as a separate structure, to keep the toxic substances needed to produce the melatonin away from sensitive eye tissue. In support of his theory, Klein points to how the light-sensitive cells of the retina resemble the cells of the pineal gland. In addition, he underscores that the retinas of mice, fish, frogs and birds can produce small amounts of melatonin, which he believes indicates melatonin’s origin in the ancestral light-sensitive cell. Essentially, as humans evolved, melatonin production was no longer going on in the retina and was confined to the pineal gland.
Other substances have been detected in the pineal gland of mammals, including those associated with reproductive function, as well as hypothalamic and pituitary hormones. For example, experiments on rodents have shown that the duration of the melatonin signal, which depends on how long it’s dark for, conveys information that regulates reproductive activity. The relationship between the pineal gland and reproduction has not been firmly established. Nevertheless, administration of melatonin to human subjects has been found to alter the levels of sex hormones and men and women, and inhibit the mobility of sperm in men.
Melatonin is also related to the cardiovascular system. At nighttime, when melatonin levels are high, blood pressure, heart rate, and cardiac output are lower. This relationship is corroborated by the fact that when melatonin is administered during the daytime, there is also a drop in heart rate.
Studies conducted by Maestroni et al. have demonstrated that if you suppress endogenous melatonin mice, you will see a decrease in spleen and thymus activity, and in the production of antibodies (immune response) to antigens (foreign or toxic substances). This effect was reversed when melatonin was administered. Heavy doses of melatonin also increase T helper cell activity; these being cells that provide help to other cells in the immune system, by recognising antigens. There is also an increase in the production of IL-2 (a protein that regulates the activities of white blood cells, which are responsible for immunity).
Researchers C.S. Poon and S.F. Pang have suggested a number of ways in which melatonin affects the immune system, based on the detection of melatonin receptors in lymphoid organs (those that form part of the immune system, such as the spleen, thymus and lymph nodes) and in lymphocytes (a type of white cell in the immune system that determines the specific immune response to foreign substances). In addition, animal studies highlight that melatonin has oncostatic properties, meaning it can halt the spread of cancer.
So while we still do not understand a lot about what the pineal gland does, as we can see, it is clear that it serves a crucial function that doesn’t necessarily include producing altered states. On the other hand, the gaps in our knowledge about this tiny organ – as well as the fact that some philosophers have attached supreme importance to it – have led to the question of whether it does something far more mind-blowing than regulating sleep. Strassman speculates that many mystical states might arise due to the endogenous production of DMT in the pineal gland. So let’s examine what available evidence might bolster this hypothesis.
DMT and the Pineal Gland
Some relatively recent evidence suggests that DMT might be produced in the human pineal gland. In 2013, Strassman et al. had a paper published in the journal Biomedical Chromatography, demonstrating, for the first time, the presence of DMT – as well as the precursors necessary for its biosynthesis – in the brains of rats. Before the publication of this study, the myth was promulgated that the human pineal gland produces DMT, even though there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support the claim. The results of this study – carried out by the Cottonwood Research Foundation, which is looking for the presence of DMT in humans – may end up vindicating Strassman’s hypothesis. After all, it does seem quite odd that a rat would synthesize a powerful psychedelic. However, the study does not highlight what the role of DMT is in the rat pineal gland. Just because DMT can have psychedelic effects, this doesn’t mean that its only function or reason for being endogenously produced is to induce such effects.
Furthermore, while the study shows that the mammalian brain is capable of producing DMT, it still has not been verified that the human brain actually produces the compound. On the other hand, rats were used in this research – which, along with mice, make up 95% of all animals used in research – because they bear many similarities with humans. This includes similarities between brains. For example, a 2013 paper published in the journal Frontiers in Neural Circuits describes a striking parallel between the motor cortices of rats and humans, suggesting that the rat model is even more relevant to the study of the human brain than previously thought. Rats are also used in research because, like humans, they’re social (and possibly empathic) creatures. Thus, studying the structures of the brain responsible for those traits in rats can offer clues about the human brain. Rats are genetically, biologically and behaviourally quite similar to humans, and many symptoms of human conditions can be reproduced in rats, which attests to these similarities.
Rats and mice are used as models for a plethora of human disorders and diseases, as well as in behavioural, sensory, ageing, nutrition, genetic, and addiction studies. However, there are certain limitations when it comes to using animal models. Extrapolating results from animal models to humans can be unreliable.
Nevertheless, Strassman’s 2013 study certainly does add motivation for testing whether DMT is present in the human pineal gland as well. Strassman did attempt to isolate DMT from 10 human pineal glands, taken from corpses. No DMT was detected. Although it’s worth pointing out that neither the bodies nor the glands were freshly frozen. Since DMT metabolises quickly, it may have degraded before being analysed by Strassman. Further studies on freshly frozen brains could be done, which may end up validating Strassman’s hypothesis.
So far, DMT has been detected in small quantities in human blood, plasma, urine, and kidney and lung tissue. It has been detected in higher concentrations in the cerebrospinal fluid, which is a clear, colourless fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. It acts as a cushion for the brain, providing mechanical and immunological protection. But what is DMT doing in the human body? So far, research has illustrated that DMT modulates immune responses under various conditions, by blocking inflammation, for example.
It has also been suggested that DMT is involved in neuroregeneration (growth or repair of nervous tissues, cells or cell products) in the mammalian nervous system. Researchers discovered that DMT is able to protect brain cells and the immune system under stress by binding to Sigma-1 receptors. These receptors are located inside immune and brain cells, and in cells in other organs, such as the liver, kidney, and gut. They play an important role in stress signalling. By switching off the genes responsible for Sigma-1 receptors, the DMT-related effects on cell survival disappear. Thus, Szabo et al. concluded that these receptors play an instrumental role in enabling the protective, anti-stress effects of DMT. Following these results, the authors suggest that DMT could be administered to protect neurons from harmful events, such as oxygen starvation caused by heart attack or stroke. DMT could also be used to address the damage brought on by neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
However, the role of DMT in human consciousness is another matter. The particular kind of enzyme thought to be crucial for DMT production – indolethylamine N-methyltransferase, or INMT – has not yet been detected in the human brain or pineal gland. On the other hand, DMT has been found in rabbit brain tissue, without the presence of INMT, so perhaps DMT can be produced without INMT. Moreover, one study provides evidence of INMT in primate pineal glands, which could potentially support Strassman’s hypothesis. There are definitely some obstacles to overcome: studying the pineal gland in living organisms is tricky, DMT is difficult to detect, and it’s a heavily controlled substance in most countries.
Historical and Cultural Perspectives
Despite the gaps in our scientific knowledge about DMT, many people point to other kinds of ‘evidence’ which apparently show why the pineal gland is the seat of the soul: the gateway to a spiritual dimension. The curious positioning of the Ajna chakra in the forehead and Descartes’ philosophy are two examples. You can find other websites which purport that the pineal gland has been represented in various cultural traditions through the symbol of the pinecone. At the Vatican, you can see the Fontana della Pigna or simply Pigna (pine cone), which is a fountain consisting of a large bronze statue of a pine cone. In Neo-Assyrian art, winged deities are frequently depicted with a bucket in one hand and a pine cone in the other.
The staff of the Egyptian god Osiris (c. 1224 BC) at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, is portrayed as twin cobras intertwining around the staff, meeting a pine cone which sits at the top. In ancient Greek mythology, the thyrsus was a staff of giant fennel covered with ivy vines, and always topped with a pine cone. It is associated with Dionysus (or Bacchus), the god of wine, fertility, and religious ecstasy. In the Aachen Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church in western Germany, a bronze statue of a pine cone can be found in the entrance hall. And in reference to the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, art historian Benjamin Rowland writes in his book The Art and Architecture of India, “The individual spires at Angkor…have a pine-cone profile.”
One’s first assumption may be to regard these examples of pine cone symbolism as evidence that it’s long been known that the pineal gland is the eye of mystical awareness. Indeed, authors who specialise in occultism and esoteric philosophy, such as Richard Cassaro, assert that the pine cone represents the pineal gland in these instances. However, that may not necessarily be the case. It’s true that the pineal gland gets its name because it’s meant to be shaped somewhat like a pine cone. But this doesn’t mean that all instances of pine cone symbolism refer to the pineal gland. Indeed, as art historian William Tronzo writes in his book St. Peter’s in the Vatican:
As icons of fecundity and regeneration, pinecones appeared from the time immemorial on the tip of the Bacchuc thysrus. The Romans placed them in fountains, and monumental cones were also placed as finials on funerary buildings, with the same symbolic connotations.
Being associated with Dionysus and his followers, the thyrsus is seen as a symbol of prosperity, fertility, and pleasure. It has also been suggested that the thyrsus was a phallic object denoting fertility, with the fennel representing the shaft of the penis and the pine cone representing the ‘seed’.
There is no evidence that the Assyrians or ancient Egyptians were aware of the pineal gland in the brain. While the ancient Egyptians are responsible for the oldest use of the word ‘brain’ and provide the first anatomical accounts of this supremely important organ, they didn’t hold the brain in very high regard. During the process of mummification, the brain was scooped out through the nostrils and discarded. The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus (c. 1700 BC) describes the convolutions of the brain, the coverings of the brain (meninges), and the cerebrospinal fluid. But no documents indicate that the ancient Egyptians examined the inner structure of the brain. The pine cone topped on the staff of Osiris may, like for the ancient Greeks and Romans, signify fertility and growth.
The pine cone is a beautiful example of the Fibonacci spiral in nature. Fibonacci spirals are based on the Fibonacci sequence, which is characterised by every number after the first two being the sum of the preceding two numbers (i.e. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…). Fibonacci spirals are abundantly expressed in natural forms. The pine cone perhaps came to represent fertility and growth because it clearly and perfectly displays Fibonacci spirals. In fact, spirals are exemplified in a range of sacred and religious architecture. Some examples include the archaeological site of Mitla in Oaxaca, Mexico; the Vatican Museum’s spiral staircase; the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq; and the Newgrange passage tomb in County Meath, Ireland. Spirals are also found throughout pre-Columbian art in Latin America. The spiral has long been associated with growth and fertility, no doubt due to its proliferation in the natural world.
Thus, it may be that pine cone symbolism has more to do with the universal human reverence of nature, rather than the more tenuous idea that ancient cultures somehow knew that the pineal gland is the organ of mystical experiences. While it is certainly true that the accomplishments and knowledge of ancient civilisations are impressive – and their wisdom invaluable and timeless – there is a danger of overstepping in our assessment of their discoveries. Recent archaeological discoveries, such as Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, show that the advent of civilisation is much older than conventional history tells us. However, we should be careful about romanticising ancient cultures and getting swept away by tantalizing stories we create about them being guardians of immense secrets and knowledge that modern culture is blind to.
What is also tenuous are some of the examples of pine cone symbolism that appear all over the internet. For instance, the Aztec goddess of agriculture and maize Chicomecoatl has been depicted in statues holding something that looks like a pine cone. But just because it looks like a pine cone, it doesn’t mean that it is one. Chicomecoatl is the goddess of maize, so in all likelihood, she is portrayed holding corn, rather than a pine cone. Others suggest that the head of the Buddha in various statues signifies the pine cone. Yet this is a bit of a forced example since there is barely any resemblance of it to a pine cone.
You can also find images of the Eye of Horus and a cross-section of the pineal gland shown side by side, to highlight the similarities. But again, the resemblance is quite forced. Moreover, as mentioned previously, there is no evidence that the ancient Egyptians were even aware of the pineal gland, let alone anything about the inner workings of the brain. In the ancient Egyptian worldview, the heart is believed to be the seat of the soul, not a specific organ in the brain – let alone the brain itself. There is no mention of a ‘third eye’. Based on ancient Egyptian mythology, the Eye of Horus is a symbol of restoration, healing, and protection, not mystical awareness.
On the other hand, a critic may respond that there is a clear mention of the third eye in Hinduism as the Ajna chakra, which provides perception beyond ordinary sight. And isn’t this exactly what a DMT-producing pineal gland would do – to provide profound experiences without the physical eyes? This is possible, of course. But can no other explanations be exhausted as to why third eye symbolism exists? Are there any other reasons why the Ajna chakra is located directly behind the centre of the forehead, if not to correspond to the pineal gland? Perhaps it could correspond to where it intuitively feels like spiritual awareness comes from – in the head and behind the eyes. Undoubtedly, the idea of the ‘mind’s eye’ is ancient. The very existence of imagination, dreaming, and insight naturally evoke the concept of a very different, but also a very real way of ‘seeing’. Is it really any surprise, then, that the third eye would be represented where the head and eyes are?
We don’t yet know if a DMT-producing pineal gland is responsible for non-ordinary states. It’s tempting and exciting to jump to the conclusion that the descriptions of the third eye in Hinduism are clear evidence of a DMT-producing pineal gland; that it can’t be a mere coincidence that the Ajna chakra is vaguely located where the pineal gland is. But it could be. There doesn’t have to be any meaningful connection whatsoever between the two.
A lot of the hype about the pineal gland may, in fact, boil down to this inherent human tendency to find meaningful patterns when there aren’t in fact any. This psychological bias was mentioned previously; it’s known as apophenia, or as the science writer Michael Shermer coined it in 2008, patternicity. In his book The Believing Brain (2011), Shermer explains that we are hard-wired to look for meaningful patterns in the world. When people approach the world with an expected model, this underlying patternicity manifests in specific ways – a Christian sees the Virgin Mary in a window stain, a UFOlogist sees a face on Mars, and a conspiracy theorist believes 9/11 was an inside job orchestrated by the Bush Administration. Our brains are belief-creating machines; we inexorably find ourselves ‘connecting the dots’ and creating patterns that we think we see. Sometimes A is connected to B. Sometimes the rustle we hear in a bush is really the movements of a potential predator and not a small, harmless animal, or just the wind.
Individuals most likely to survive and reproduce are those who always assume that A is connected to B, rather than sometimes making that assumption and sometimes not. While pattern-seeking individuals may be more paranoid than their less- or non-pattern-seeking counterparts, it is a relatively small price to pay given the potential risk (death) of not constantly being on the lookout for patterns. We are not great at working out probabilities. We are not probability machines, but rule-of-thumb machines. Natural selection favours patternicity because it’s too risky to rely on anything else in potentially life-threatening situations. Maybe always believing that the rustle in the bush is a predator makes you feel on edge. However, believing that the rustle is the wind when it’s actually a predator is the kind of belief that will soon be deselected by nature.
Evolutionary trade-offs are common; there are many unsettling aspects about ourselves that serve – or used to serve – our survival. You may not live in an environment where you have to watch out for predators, but this doesn’t mean that the paranoid mind will disappear. Many conspiracy theories are testament to a mind that inclines towards paranoid thinking.
All of this relates to the obsession with the pineal gland in the New Age and psychedelic community, because it may very well be that patternicity is at play here. It seems natural to draw parallels between pine cone and third eye symbolism, and the pineal gland, and that’s because it is natural. We have an inbuilt bias towards making meaningful connections between certain things that, if judged by reason and evidence, would be perceived as not meaningfully connected. On the other hand, A sometimes is connected to B. The Ajna chakra might be connected to the DMT-producing pineal gland. However, given what we know about patternicity, we should be conscious of whether this belief is grounded in evidence or whether it is based on a psychological clinging to a pattern. If Christians see the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast, then New Age and psychedelic enthusiasts see the pineal gland in all sorts of places.
Confirmation bias may also be involved in this passionate fascination with the pineal gland. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs. If you start out with the belief that the pineal gland is the seat of the soul, then you may see pine cones and the chakra system as obvious confirmation of this belief. But it’s only palpable because of the way in which confirmation bias moves us to be premature, rigid, and myopic in the conclusions that we make. The discovery of DMT in the pineal glands of live rats does not mean that the issue is settled. Even if DMT was found in the human pineal gland, there would still be questions that need answering, before this organ can be singled out as the biological gateway into other worlds. For example, is DMT present or produced elsewhere else in the brain? And are concentrations of DMT high enough to produce intense subjective effects, such as NDEs and other mystical experiences?
In an article published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, psychedelic researcher David E. Nichols says that there is no reason to believe that altered states of consciousness are a result of the pineal gland producing DMT. He underscores that the pineal gland weighs less than 0.2 grams and produces 30ug (micrograms) of melatonin per day. In order to induce a psychedelic experience, it would have to produce about 25mg of DMT. As a “rational scientist”, Nichols argues that it is “simply impossible” for the organ to “accomplish such a heroic biochemical feat”. Also, since DMT is broken down by MAO, there is no evidence it can accumulate within the brain. Nichols believes we can explain out-of-body experiences and other altered states in other, more rational ways.
This article was updated on 5th February 2018.