THE PINEAL: MEET THE SPIRIT GLAND • 59
is the center and top of the skull, anatomically corresponding to the hu-
man 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 a
pinecone, 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 counter-
parts; 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 mathemati-
cian, 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 cere-
brospinal 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
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60 • THE BUILDING BLOCKS
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 repercus-
sions 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
The pineal gland of evolutionarily older animals, such as lizards and am-
phibians, is also called the "third" eye. Just like the two seeing eyes, the
third eye possesses a lens, cornea, and retina. It is light-sensitive and
helps regulate body temperature and skin coloration—two basic survival
functions intimately related to environmental light. Melatonin, the pri-
mary pineal hormone, is present in primitive pineal glands.
As animals climbed the evolutionary ladder, the pineal moved in-
ward, deeper into the brain, more hidden and removed from outside
influences. While the bird pineal no longer sits on top of the skull, it
remains sensitive to outside light because of the paper-thin surrounding
bones. The mammalian, including human, pineal is buried even deeper
in the brain's recesses and is not directly sensitive to light, at least in
It is interesting to speculate that as the pineal assumes a more
THE PINEAL: MEET THE SPIRIT GLAND • 61
"spiritual" role, it needs the greater protection from the environment af-
forded by such deep placement in the skull.
The human pineal gland becomes visible in the developing fetus at
seven weeks, or forty-nine days, after conception. Of great interest to me
was finding out that this is nearly exactly the moment in which one can
clearly see the first indication of male or female gender. Before this time,
the sex of the fetus is indeterminate, or unknown. Thus, the pineal gland
and the most important differentiation of humanity, male and female gen-
der, appear at the same time.
The human pineal gland is not actually part of the brain. Rather, it
develops from specialized tissues in the roof of the fetal mouth. From
there it migrates to the center of the brain, where it seems to have the best
seat in the house.
We have already noted the pineal's proximity to cerebrospinal fluid
channels, which allows its secretions easy access to the brain's deepest
recesses. Additionally, it sits in strategic closeness to the crucial emo-
tional and sensory brain centers.
These sensory or perceptual hubs are called the visual and auditory
colliculi, little mounds of specialized brain tissue. They are relay stations
for the transmission of sense data to brain sites involved in their registra-
tion and interpretation. That is, electrical and chemical impulses that
begin in the eyes and ears must pass through the colliculi before we expe-
rience them in our minds as sights and sounds. The pineal gland hangs
directly over these colliculi, separated by only a narrow channel of cere-
brospinal fluid. Anything secreted by the pineal into that fluid would settle
onto the colliculi in a moment.
In addition, the limbic, or "emotional," brain surrounds the tiny pi-
neal. The limbic "system" is a collection of brain structures intimately
involved in the experience of feelings, such as joy, rage, fear, anxiety, and
pleasure. Therefore, the pineal also has direct access to the brain's emo-
For many years physiologists considered the mammalian pineal gland the
equivalent of the "brain's appendix." It was a residual, vestigial organ, a
62 II THE BUILDING BLOCKS
throwback to our early reptilian days, with no known role. That changed
when American dermatologist Aaron Lerner discovered melatonin in 1958.
This and related findings began what might be called the era of the "me-
latonin hypothesis of pineal function."
Lerner was interested in vitiligo, a skin disorder in which there are
depigmented, or lightened, patches of skin throughout the body. A 1917
study observed that cow pineal gland extract lightened frog skin. Lerner
thought that a pineal factor therefore was involved in vitiligo. He ground
up over twelve thousand cow pineals and finally found the skin-lighten-
ing compound. He named it melatonin because it lightened skin by
contracting the black pigment in special cells: melas, black; and tonin,
contract or squeeze. (Despite all of Lerner's work, there is little evidence
today that melatonin plays a role in vitiligo.)
At the same time, scientists were manipulating light and dark cycles
in order to better understand the effect of light on reproduction, no small
issue when one considers the economic value of well-timed animal breeding
for the livestock industry. They found that constant darkness blocked re-
productive function and shrank the sexual organs; it also stimulated pineal
growth and the production of melatonin. On the other hand, constant light
shrank the pineal, reduced melatonin levels, and turned on sexual func-
tion. Using these experimental results, scientists concluded that melatonin
was the crucial pineal factor in whose presence reproductive function
flagged, and in whose absence reproductive function flourished. Put sim-
ply, melatonin possessed powerful anti-reproductive effects.
Now that the pineal gland had lost some of its mystery, how did melatonin
relate to the alleged spiritual properties of the gland? I firmly believed
that there was a spirit molecule somewhere in the brain, initiating or sup-
porting mystical and other naturally occurring altered states of conscious-
ness. My first best guess was that pineal melatonin was this "spirit
molecule," the chemical interpreter through which the body and spirit
met and communicated. If melatonin had profound psychedelic proper-
ties, my search for the vehicle by which the pineal affected our spiritual
lives was over.
THE PINEAL: MEET THE SPIRIT GLAND • 63
Melatonin's full name is N-acetyl-5-methoxy-tryptamine. We can tell
by its name and structure that, like DMT and 5-methoxy-DMT, melatonin
is a tryptamine.
We have a good understanding of how the body regulates melatonin
production. It is the "hormone of darkness." Light turns off melatonin
production, both during daylight hours and in the presence of artificial
light during nighttime hours. The longer the nighttime dark hours, the
more melatonin. The greater the daylight hours, the less melatonin. Be-
sides indicating whether it is day or night, the patterns of melatonin
production also inform the animal about the time of year. These longer-
term melatonin effects help prepare for the appropriate seasonal
responses—pregnancy in spring or fall, hibernation during the winter, or
fat loss in summer.
Noradrenaline and adrenaline (or norepinephrine and epinephrine)
are the two neurotransmitters that turn on melatonin synthesis in the pi-
neal. They are released directly onto the pineal gland by nerve cells that
almost touch it. The neurotransmitters attach to specialized receptors,
which then begin the chemical process of melatonin formation.
The adrenal glands also make adrenaline and noradrenaline, releas-
ing them into the bloodstream in response to stress. They are crucial factors
64 • THE BUILDING BLOCKS
in the body's reaction to danger: the "fight-or-flight" response. However,
only adrenaline and noradrenaline released by nearby pineal nerve end-
ings, not by the adrenal glands, have any effect on pineal function.
This is not what we would expect. Since the pineal gland does not
originate from brain tissue, it exists outside the blood-brain barrier and
ought to be responsive to blood-borne chemicals and drugs. Neverthe-
less, the body protects the pineal gland with a fierce tenacity. The
stress-related surges of adrenal-gland adrenaline and noradrenaline se-
creted into the blood never get to the pineal. The pineal security system,
made up of "vacuuming" nerve cells, simply cleans up the blood-borne
adrenaline and noradrenaline in an incredibly efficient manner. Not sur-
prisingly, this barrier makes it nearly impossible to stimulate the pineal
gland to produce melatonin during the day.
Tiny blood vessels surround the pineal, so once it makes melatonin,
the hormone quickly enters the bloodstream and spreads throughout the
body. The pineal also secretes melatonin directly into the cerebrospinal
fluid, where it can affect the brain even more quickly.
The function of melatonin in humans is uncertain, despite major ad-
vances in our understanding of its effects in other animals. There is great
interest in determining whether melatonin has the same effects on repro-
ductive function in humans as it does in other mammals. Melatonin levels
fall dramatically at human puberty. Some investigators think this may
allow the sexual apparatus to free itself from pineal restraint and thus
begin functioning in an adult manner. Conclusive evidence remains elu-
sive. Neither is it scientifically established that melatonin plays a role in
jet lag, winter depression, sleep, cancer, or aging.
For any chemical to qualify as a spirit molecule, it must at least possess
psychedelic effects. Does melatonin's striking chemical similarity to DMT
and 5-methoxy-DMT mean that it also is profoundly psychoactive?
Some early studies suggested that melatonin has mind-altering prop-
erties. For example, administering high doses before bedtime seemed to
induce vivid dreams. However, it is difficult to interpret those older stud-
ies. They were not looking for, nor did they measure, psychedelic effects
THE PINEAL: MEET THE SPIRIT GLAND • 65
of melatonin. There was only one way for me to find out if melatonin was
psychedelic, and that was to administer it to my own human volunteers.
After completing my psychiatric residency, I spent a year in Fairbanks,
Alaska, working at the local community mental health center. My experi-
ence in the Arctic introduced me to the new field of "winter depression."
This syndrome revitalized interest in the human biology of the pineal
gland and melatonin. Research into their role in winter depression held
promise for helping us understand and treat a wide range of seasonal
human syndromes. This astonishing coincidence provided me a context
for beginning to probe the pineal's mysteries. However, I knew little about
human research, so I sought ways to further my training.
I moved to San Diego to take up a year-long fellowship in clinical
psychopharmacology research at the University of California. I learned
how to write scientific proposals and grants, design experiments, and ad-
minister research drugs in a clinical environment. I gave and scored rating
scales, collected blood and other biological samples, and analyzed and
wrote up data.
Following a San Diego colleague, Jonathan Lisansky, M.D., to Albu-
querque, I began working under the guidance of Glenn Peake, M.D., a
pediatric endocrinologist. Glenn was the Scientific Director of the Uni-
versity of New Mexico's General Clinical Research Center, an outstanding
research site funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Glenn,
Jonathan, and I performed a comprehensive three-year study of melato-
nin effects in normal human volunteers. Out of this emerged the first, and
so far only, documented role for melatonin in human physiology: melato-
nin contributes to the early morning drop in body temperature.
There is a daily rhythm in many biological functions in humans. One
of the most robust is body temperature, in which there is a sharp dip at
3 A.M. This also is when melatonin levels are highest.
We studied nineteen male volunteers who stayed awake all night in
light that was bright enough to prevent any melatonin formation. The drop
in body temperature was not nearly as deep as normal in these melatonin-
deprived men, and we wondered if the lack of melatonin was responsible.
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