The third eye, the pineal gland and spiritual awakening.
Rene Decartes claimed the pineal gland to be the "principle seat of the soul." Many ancient religions and traditions, across the globe, share the belief of the third eye as a gateway to spiritual awakening and higher consciousness. The third eye is classically associated with the pineal gland, a physical structure within the brain. To what degree does the pineal gland physiology fit with the beliefs of the third eye? The linkage between the spiritual concept of the third eye, with a structure whose functions is defined by modern neuroscientists, is a prime example of the link between spirituality and science. This post shall explore the pineal gland and the third eye, the science in line with ancient wisdom, and whether some of the scientific claims can be trusted.
History and tradition of the third eye
The concept of the third eye is commonly associated with kundalini yoga, a practice descending from ancient Indian Hindu texts. Kundalini is the practice of activating a dormant feminine energy and moving it from the base of the spine through to the crown of the head, which requires various chakras, or "energy-wheels", along the way to be unblocked. There are seven chakras in total with the sixth chakra being the third eye chakra, or Anja, which is located on the forehead between the eyebrows. In kundalini, the third eye is where ida and pingala- the feminine and masculine energies meet, and a balance of these energies is required to unblock the third eye chakra. By unblocking this chakra, one can obtain higher consciousness and achieve enlightenment, seeing the universe beyond its physical realm. Other religions and traditions share the view the third eye is a gateway between the material and spiritual world. For example, in Buddhism, the third eye symbolises spiritual awakening, knowledge and wisdom, and a small dot in the third eye location can often be found in statues of the Buddha. Even in Western religion, King Solomon in the old testament talks of an inner eye, separate to those which form vision, that "perceives the light".
History of the pineal gland and relation to the third eye
The pineal gland was discovered in first-century Greece by Galen and coined its name because of its resemblance to a pinecone. Galen believed that the ventricles (fluid-filled cavities) found in front of the pineal gland contained "psychic pneuma", a space where the soul is contained. In the 16th century, famous philosopher, Rene Decartes, claimed the pineal gland is the primary place where the soul is found, and spoke of the vessels surrounding the pineal gland as "bringing spirits into the brain." He observed the pineal gland is unique because it is a single structure unlike most body structures which come in pairs, so could be a unifying point where our physical being meets spiritual existence.
Dating even further back in history, the ancient Egyptians made references to the pineal gland and showed relations of the pineal to the third eye in their Hieroglyphics. The iconic eye of Horus resembles a structure of the midbrain, the area of the brain where the pineal is found, and round marks can in found paintings above pairs of eyes, similar to how the third eye is depicted in Hinduism and Buddhism. Furthermore, the famous Egyptian staff of Orisis depicts two intertwining serpents rising and meeting at a pinecone. The pinecone is symbolic of the pineal gland and this image relates to the rising of ida and pingala in kundalini traditions which ascend and meet at third eye. This suggests ancient knowledge of the pineal gland, and without any modern scientific technology, it may seem the Egyptians had already begun to relate its function to the third eye.
Despite differences in historical time points and locations across the globe, the spiritual significance of the pineal gland, and beliefs in the third eye have prevailed. Can modern science help explain their link?
The pineal eye and consciousness
Surprisingly, evidence suggests our pineal gland evolved from a structure termed a third eye, or pineal eye. This pineal eye is still found in the forehead centre of reptiles today, in a similar position to the third eye in spiritual traditions. Its function is to control various body rhythms such as sleep-wake and reproductive cycles. Like the pineal eye of retiles, our human pineal glands contain the same cell type as found in our vision-sensing eyes but instead of forming images, it controls when we are asleep and awake through production of a hormone molecule called melatonin. The third eye is associated with consciousness and spiritual awakening through access to higher conscious states. As the pineal gland is responsible for taking us from a sleeping to a waking state, it controls how conscious we are. Therefore, it seems rational that if the third eye is an existing structure, it may be at least in part controlled by the pineal gland. However, the qualities of higher consciousness associated with the third eye include insight and wisdom. As our pre-frontal cortex is an area of the brain responsible for intelligence, it could be proposed this brain region may be a instead a better candidate.
The pineal gland and the spirit molecule
Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a naturally occurring substance which is sometimes referred to as the spirit molecule. DMT is a psychedelic drug, well-known for its ability to produce profound hallucinatory out-of-body experiences and is the key ingredient in ayahuasca brew, which has been drunk traditionally in shamanic ceremonies and rituals for many years. Common DMT reports are uncanny to reports kundalini practitioners describe of unblocking their third eye and experiencing spiritual awakening. These include geometrical hallucinations, spontaneous bodily sensations, ego death (letting go of the sense of "I), euphoria, encounters with spiritual entities and a sense of oneness with the universe. Evidence has suggested mammals can naturally make DMT themselves and findings of DMT in the pineal gland of rats indicate the pineal gland is its site of production. Perhaps by unlocking the third eye in kundalini, a natural activation of the pineal gland occurs stimulating DMT production. In line with this theory, Ajna lights, named after the third eye, are a technology used to stimulate the pineal gland and have been reported to give experiences similar to that produced by DMT.
It is a romantic notion that the body's natural spirit molecule is produced by the brain area associated with the third eye. However, recent reports have suggested natural DMT production is not enough to produce any notable effects. Furthermore, although DMT is found is higher amounts near the pineal, this does not prove the gland itself produces DMT. Although there are similarities between experiences of pineal activation, and DMT, there are also differences and these are personal subjective reports so what may be a spiritual experience for one person, could be a totally different experience for another.
There is certainly a serendipitous relationship between the third eye, the pineal gland and spiritual awakening. The function of the pineal in consciousness, though sleep and wake control, and the possibility the pineal can produce spiritual DMT experiences show how modern science could piece together the mystery of the pineal and third eye which curiously presents itself across the globe throughout history.
However, scientific findings can often be distorted to fit with an idea which makes the most sense. If the pineal gland was responsible for higher consciousness and spiritual experiences this would paint a nice complete picture. But the evidence simply is not strong enough. And perhaps the relationship between the third eye and pineal is simply a co-incidence. The third eye may simply be a concept with no material form or biological basis.
Whether you believe in the third eye or not, the third eye and pineal blends the cusp between ancient wisdoms, philosophy, science and religion.