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The pineal gland is, evolutionarily speaking, a weird object. It probably began as a photoreceptor organ, and in some vertebrates (such as tuataras) it is still connected to the parietal (third) eye. As a gland, it regulates the action of other glands including the pituitary gland (the "master gland" itself, as it is sometimes known).

Rene Descartes famously believed that the pineal gland was the seat of the soul, in the sense that it was where the noncorporeal mind made contact with the physical body. Since Descartes' time, there have been many other pseudoscientific ideas promulgated about the gland.

Given this history, it makes some sense that science fiction writers have used the pineal gland as the source of various kinds of extrasensory perception. Lovecraft did it in "From Beyond" (written in 1920 but not published in 1934). Clark Ashton Smith used a similar conceit in 1940's "Double Cosmos." There are others; those were just the two the jumped to my mind immediately.

How far back does the idea of the pineal gland enabling extrasensory perception go? I suppose the concept could have been introduced as far back as Descartes' time, or possibly even earlier.

  • Ugh... Thanks for reminding me of the misfortune of seeing the 1986 film adaptation From Beyond... :p – Jon Clements Feb 14 '18 at 14:39
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TL; DR - Origins go back at least as far as the year 200 CE/AD, with the publication of "On the usefulness of the parts of the body" by Galen. (Admittedly, this doesn't specifically state ESP, but that it regulates the "soul" contained in the brain as a belief).

The earliest identification of the pineal gland as an independent entity goes back to the Greek physician Galen, ca 130ca - 210 CE. (CE = Common Era, replaces Anno Domini {AD})

At the time, he described it as pine cone shaped structure (hence the name), with the same function as all other glands, support for blood vessels. At the time, people regarded the brain as filled with "psychic neuma", or the seat of the soul. The pineal gland was supposed to regulate this.

Apparently Galen disagreed, but does not cite where or when the belief he was refuting came from. So the origins of the gland being connected to the soul/ESP type functions at least go as far back as Galen, but with no apparent citation for where this belief originated.

Most of the above is taken from a rather interesting article I found on Stanford's site. The following is the pertinent reference from the article:

Galen discussed the pineal gland in the eighth book of his anatomical work On the usefulness of the parts of the body. He explained that it owes its name (Greek: kônarion, Latin: glandula pinealis) to its resemblance in shape and size to the nuts found in the cones of the stone pine (Greek: kônos, Latin: pinus pinea). He called it a gland because of its appearance and said that it has the same function as all other glands of the body, namely to serve as a support for blood vessels.

In order to understand the rest of Galen’s exposition, the following two points should be kept in mind. First, his terminology was different from ours. He regarded the lateral ventricles of the brain as one paired ventricle and called it the anterior ventricle. He accordingly called the third ventricle the middle ventricle, and the fourth the posterior one. Second, he thought that these ventricles were filled with “psychic pneuma,” a fine, volatile, airy or vaporous substance which he described as “the first instrument of the soul.” (See Rocca 2003 for a detailed description of Galen’s views about the anatomy and physiology of the brain.)

Galen went to great lengths to refute a view that was apparently circulating in his time (but whose originators or protagonists he did not mention) according to which the pineal gland regulates the flow of psychic pneuma in the canal between the middle and posterior ventricles of the brain, just as the pylorus regulates the passage of food from the esophagus to the stomach. Galen rejected this view because, first, the pineal gland is attached to the outside of the brain and, second, it cannot move on its own.

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