The pineal gland – mythical seat of spirituality and consciousness, the site of the primordial “third eye” – has been of fascination to humanity since its function and importance were discovered. It is well-known that the pineal gland responds to psychoactive drugs, so what happens when we use cannabis?
What is Pineal Gland for?
While undoubtedly important, the pineal gland does not possess mystical or supernatural properties, no matter how much some people would like to believe it. Even some great, renowned thinkers have fallen foul of magical thinking here, such as the scientist and philosopher Descartes, who described the pineal gland as “the seat of the soul”. Indeed, it is just but one gland among many that comprise the endocrine system in vertebrate animal species, whose function is heavily involved in the regulation of circadian (daily) rhythm and the production of hormones – the most important of which being melatonin, the “sleep hormone”. However, there are a few things that mark out the pineal gland as unique and interesting. Let’s take a brief look at what they are.
Why is the Pineal Gland so Unusual?
The idea of the pineal gland being a primordial “third eye” has some basis in fact. The gland is made up of cells known as pinealocytes, which in some non-mammal vertebrate species actually directly respond to light. This ability makes them very similar to the cells of the retina, the part of the eye that receives light from the lens opening. In some fossil species, scientists have even found holes just like eye sockets in the centre-rear part of the skull, which allowed the pineal gland to receive light directly, just like an eye.
In fact, several modern species of reptile and fish still retain a functional “third eye”, such as the New Zealand reptile species the tuatara, whose extra eye actually has a lens, a retina and a cornea of its own! It is thought that these functional third eyes are involved in maintaining daily and seasonal cycles of hormone production. In mammals, the pinealocytes aren’t known to directly receive light, and there is no evidence of functional “third eyes” existing. However, the pinealocytes of mammals are known to be directly linked to the retina itself, which sends signals in response to changes in light levels in order to regulate circadian rhythms. So in some respects, if one stretches the definition of what constitutes an eye to the limit, one could still say that the pineal gland functions somewhat like a rudimentary third eye even in mammals. One interesting aspect of the pineal gland that certainly does apply to mammals, including humans, in this: unlike much of the brain, the pineal gland is not separated from the rest of the body by the blood-brain barrier. It receives abundant blood flow directly from the posterior cerebral artery, which may have something to do with its receptiveness to psychoactive substances.
Why Psychoactive substances affect pineal gland?
Clearly, the pineal gland is essential to maintaining a healthy, positive mind state, and is deeply concerned with emotional states in general.
When humans consume psychiatric drugs, it affects this complex cascade of activity in the pineal gland, in conjunction with various other parts of the brain, to give a subjectively altered state of perception. One example of the importance of the pineal gland in terms of psychiatric good-health is its relationship with the “Winter Blues” illness, seasonally affective disorder (often abbreviated to SAD). The fact that bright light is a common treatment for SAD suggests that the pineal gland and its associated light-sensitive hormone, melatonin, is involved.
Furthermore, the fact that low light levels can cause such a dramatic set of psychological symptoms indicate that the pineal gland is fundamentally linked with psychiatric good health in general, and that its dysfunction may be behind other mental disorders too.
How Does Cannabis Itself Work In the Pineal Gland
Why Cannabis Make People Sleepy?
Whether or not cannabis makes one feel sleepy may depend on dose, tolerance and a whole range of other factors, and may even depend on the time of day that the user consumes cannabis in relation to typical circadian rhythms.
Furthermore, there may also be a genetic element controlling individual response to cannabinoids, as genetic differences in expression of cannabinoid receptors have been noted in multiple studies. It is also now thought that many of the subjective effects of cannabis are not derived from THC per se, but rather from THC in combination with various other cannabinoids and terpenes. For example, myrcene is now thought to affect the “high” of pure THC, giving an overall more “couch-lock” effect to the user. Furthermore, pure THC has been shown on a number of occasions to have either a sedative or stimulant effect, depending on dose. The pineal gland is just one tiny link in an extremely long and complicated chain, which stretches between some of the most basic and fundamental parts of the brain (and the pineal gland can definitely be classed as basic and fundamental, as almost every living vertebrate possesses one) and some of the most advanced, such as the neocortex, which only exists in mammals.
However, the pineal gland has repeatedly been associated with the biosynthesis of important natural compounds related to sleeping, dreaming, and dream imagery. The presence of these compounds in the pineal gland is one of the most important reasons that so many view it as the “seat of the soul”, or a key to “spiritual enlightenment”. Without a doubt, the most famous of these compounds is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, more commonly known as DMT. It’s actually somewhat controversial as to whether or not the pineal gland is responsible for synthesizing DMT in humans, but there is significant evidence to suggest that it is the case. DMT and related compounds tryptamine and bufotenin have been found in human urine, and DMT itself has been shown to be synthesized in the pineal gland of the rat brain. A closely related compound, 5-MeO-DMT has been found to be synthesized in the human pineal gland, but thus far, it has not been proven that DMT itself is too. In any case, it certainly appears that the pineal gland is very much involved in the production and/or processing of substances that are well-known to be involved in helping to create “dream states” when we are asleep. Thus, there are many theories that the subjective experience of getting “high” from cannabis, hallucinogens and other psychoactive drugs also involves this subjective creation of a “dream-like” or otherwise altered reality.
The Pineal Gland is a Part of Complex and Fascinating System
The pineal gland itself is crucial to this process, and has undeniable importance as a source of consciousness-altering compounds. It works with the endocannabinoid system and various other regulatory systems to control our subjective daily experience of mood, wakefulness and sleepiness, and when we introduce external psychoactive compounds, this process can be altered in fundamental ways, some of which can be greatly enjoyable to the individual!