Saturday, March 2, 2019

Not The Pineal Gland

There is so much nonsense on the Internet about Ordo Templi Orientis and magick in general that we get people coming in the doors of our local bodies with a lot of weird beliefs. Here in the Twin Cites, we once had an individual show up who was convinced that there was a "five-foot pineal gland" in the Vatican archives.

We pressed said person - do you mean a carving or a statue? No, they replied, it was a "real pineal gland." I entertained whether this was even possible for a second or two. But I don't think there are any animals on the planet with a pineal gland that big, even a blue whale. The only reason I gave it any credence at all, in fact, was that whale organs were harvested throughout the nineteenth century, and the Vatican archives are supposed to house some weird stuff. But no, none of it made any sense.

Later on I think I found the YouTube video this individual was referring to, and it was about a statue of a pine cone that was supposed to represent the pineal gland. It isn't all that weird that the Vatican might have such a statue, simply because Rene Descartes believed the pineal gland to be "the principle seat of the soul" based only on its position in the brain and its geometry. Descartes first published this hypothesis in 1637 and it has proved surprisingly enduring, even though pretty much everything he knew about the function of the pineal gland is now known to be incorrect.

A lot of folks who are into psychedelics throw around the hypothesis that the pineal gland secretes DMT, a powerful psychedelic chemical, and it is this endogenous DMT that produces spiritual experiences. In fact, according to this recent article there is no scientific reason to believe that the pineal gland has anything to do with spiritual experiences. Small amounts of DMT have been found in the pineal gland, but this is true of many other organs in the body as well. And the tiny amounts found are nowhere near what would be required to produce a psychedelic experience.

Psychedelic researcher David E. Nichols is pushing back against the belief that the pineal gland in the brain produces mystical experiences because it creates a powerful psychoactive substance called N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

The pineal gland is a small structure inside the brain that influences the sleep cycle by secreting the hormone melatonin. But claims have spread that the pineal gland also can produce DMT, a claim that has been used as a biological explanation for dreams, UFO abductions, and other out of body experiences.

Trace amounts of DMT have been detected in the pineal gland and other parts of the human body. But Nichols, an adjunct professor of chemical biology and medicinal chemistry at the University of North Carolina, said in an article published the scientific journal Psychopharmacology that there is no good evidence to support the link between the pineal gland, DMT, and mystical experiences.

Nichols pointed out that the pineal gland weighs less than 0.2 grams and only produces about 30 µg of melatonin per day. The pineal gland would need to rapidly produce about 25 mg of DMT to provoke a psychedelic experience.

At any rate, I think the idea that spiritual experiences can be reduced to the action of a single chemical is little more than an attempt to give legitimate spiritual experiences no more significance than a drug trip. This is appealing to anybody who looks at magical practices and thinks they are cool, but are fundamentally too lazy to do any of the work. Why not just take a drug instead? It's way easier, and if it's all the same you might as well take a shortcut, right? But until somebody can show me a drug that lets my thoughts influence physical reality the way magick does, I'm not going to be taking any of those ideas seriously. Some stimulants can boost your ability a bit, but the ability has to be there in the first place. No drug, not even DMT, appears to be able to produce it.

I suppose if your goal in magick is to have a bunch of weird experiences, drugs might be a better way to go. But if that's really all you want to do with magick I have to say, I really don't share your goals at all. I do magick because I can use it to make things happen and shape my life into what I want it to be, not because I'm looking for some new way to get my consciousness altered. I've heard that there are or were some Golden Dawn groups that refused to take any new member who had tried psychedelics even once, which is completely ridiculous. At the same time, though, I strongly believe that there is no substitute for doing the work.

So it sounds like the pineal gland boosters will have to go back to the drawing board. I can't necessarily say that we never will develop a psychedelic that will work the same way magical ability does, but what I do know is that as of now there likely is no such thing.

UPDATE: In response to comments over on Facebook, a clarification. I am not trying to put forth an argument that psychedelics have no place in anyone's spiritual or religious practices. There is strong historical precedent for many drugs, including alcohol, being used is such contexts. The point I'm trying to make here is that what is going on there is more than just the effect of the drug, which implies two main points: (1) The experience from simply taking a drug and doing nothing else is not the same as a mystical experience, and (2) when evaluating historical spiritual practices that involve psychedelics, it is a gross error to assume that the only thing going on is the effect of the drug and the rest of the practices used along with it are meaningless and can be discarded.

The first rule of Augoeides is, as always, if it works it works. If you have a practice that is working for you that happens to include psychedelics, great. But I also think it's an error to assume this will be universally the case. In fact, in pharmacology it is well-known that each drug affects each individual person differently. That's why you have an ED-50, an LD-50, and a therapeutic index derived from them for every single drug. It's completely reasonable to pursue magick with no psychedelic use at all if that be your will - and I don't necessarily think the psychedelic-users are going to get better or faster magical or mystical results.

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"Dave" said...

Nice. I think I remember that dude with the Vatican info. While not discouraging the use of chemicals, including alcohol, there is good reason to discourage their overuse or substitution for other practice. I would never want to exchange my most memorable experiences for mere intoxication.

Scott Stenwick said...

For the most part it is the substitution idea that I am down on. Substances can be fine up to a point, but I am of the opinion that spiritual experiences have many other components that you just cannot synthesize.