Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Pineal pseudoscience

I often wonder why humans, as a group, are so uncomfortable remaining in ignorance about something.

It's an inevitable condition if you study anything scientific.  Scientists are always pushing the edges of our knowledge, which means they have to be keenly aware of the fact that there are a lot of questions for which we simply don't have answers.  As astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson says, "You can't be a scientist if you are uncomfortable with ignorance, because scientists live at the boundary between what is known and what is unknown in the universe. .. Scientists are always 'back at the drawing board.'  If you're not 'back at the drawing board,' you're not making discoveries.  You're not doing science.  You're doing something else."

The fact remains, however, that a lot of us don't like there to be gaps in our knowledge.  And this gives rise to the tendency to fill in those gaps with pseudoscience -- with nonsense "explanations" that give a mystical twist to the places science hasn't yet been able to elucidate.

As an example, consider the pineal gland.

I still recall finding out about the pineal gland when I was in high school biology class in the tenth grade.  We were going through the endocrine system, and our teacher, Ms. Miller, said, "There's this structure in the middle of your head called the pineal gland.  It's pretty peculiar -- everyone has one, but we have no idea what it does."  This, of course, piqued my curiosity.  How could there be a structure in our own bodies that no one could explain?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In the intervening thirty-odd years, we've progressed some, but there's still a lot we don't know about this little organ.  In the journal Neuroendocrinology, physiologists M. M. Macchi and J. N. Bruce are up front about this:
Descriptions of the pineal gland date back to antiquity, but its functions in humans are still poorly understood.  In both diurnal and nocturnal vertebrates, its main product, the hormone melatonin, is synthesized and released in rhythmic fashion, during the dark portion of the day-night cycle.  Melatonin production is controlled by an endogenous circadian timing system and is also suppressed by light.  In lower vertebrates, the pineal gland is photosensitive, and is the site of a self-sustaining circadian clock. In mammals, including humans, the gland has lost direct photosensitivity, but responds to light via a multi synaptic pathway...  Although humans are not considered photoperiodic, the occurrence of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and its successful treatment with light suggest that they have retained some photoperiodic responsiveness.  In humans, exogenous melatonin has a soporific effect, but only when administered during the day or early evening, when endogenous levels are low...  A role for the pineal in human reproduction was initially hypothesized on the basis of clinical observations on the effects of pineal tumors on sexual development...  A rapidly expanding literature attests to the involvement of melatonin in immune function, with high levels promoting and low levels suppressing a number of immune system parameters.
Put simply; the pineal gland has roles in the sleep cycle, reproduction, and the immune system, but it is far from clear how it all works.

But these gaps in our understanding just cry out for someone to come and fill them with nonsense.  Which, unfortunately, is what has happened.  If you do a Google search for "pineal gland mysticism," you'll get thousands of hits, and have access to more absurd pseudoscience than you could get through in a year.  To look at only a single example, "10 Questions About the Pineal Gland That Add to the Mystery of Spirituality," from the site Truth Theory, we have the following crazy meanderings:
The pine cone shaped, pea-sized pineal gland, located in the center of the human brain, is an organ of tremendous interest these days. To many spiritual seekers it is the ‘seat of the soul‘ and the ‘third eye,’ the anatomical part of the human body that acts as our spiritual antennae, connecting us to the non-physical, spiritual planes of existence.
Right.  Because those "non-physical, spiritual planes of existence" have themselves been shown to exist.

Then, we have a list of questions we're supposed to consider.  These are only "questions" by virtue of ending with a question mark; they're intended to lead us to belief in the woo-woo claptrap that these people are peddling, and simultaneously to ignore whatever the actual scientific research says.  To wit:
Is the pineal gland the evolutionary remnant of a literal third mammalian eye that moved into the center of the brain and changed functions from gathering light to entraining rhythms in accordance with information gathered by the retina?
No, sorry.  No vertebrate has three eyes.  Next question.
Is there a connection between the spiritual promise of the pineal gland, which is shaped like a pine cone, and the Pigna, the colossal bronze pine cone statue of ancient Rome which now sits in a courtyard in the Vatican?
Yes.  It is the same connection between kidneys and kidney beans, i.e., they are shaped kind of alike.  The fact that there's a statue of a pine cone at the Vatican is weird, but irrelevant.  Nota bene: The Pope and the Dalai Lama both have a pineal gland.  So, presumably, did Mother Teresa, Confucius, Lao Tse, Jesus, Mohammed, and L. Ron Hubbard.  But given that so does Kim Kardashian, I'm guessing that this doesn't mean much, enlightenment-wise.

Then there's this:
Why is the pineal gland the only organ in the human body that calcifies and solidifies with age?... Why is it that following the methods of pineal gland decalcification and cleansing often bring genuine results to people who are seeking heightened spiritual experience, and why do these practices often result in people being able to more easily remember dreams and lead them to feel more connected to ‘source?’
Well, first of all, your pineal gland is not the only structure in your bodies that calcifies with age.  Your cartilage does the same thing (well, some of it does); the process in the skeletal system is called "ossification," and is perfectly natural.  Woo-woos have long claimed that pineal gland calcification is caused by fluoride in tap water and toothpaste, because if you failed high school chemistry, you are apparently allowed to claim that calcium phosphate (the material that is deposited in organs that calcify) is the same thing as fluoride.

Oh, and we're not the only organisms that experience pineal gland calcification.  It's been observed in foxes, rats, and turkeys, and none of them as far as I know brush their teeth (or in the case of turkeys, their beaks).

On the other hand, maybe that's why you so seldom see enlightened turkeys.  I dunno.

And one more thing; pineal gland calcification is almost certainly irreversible, and harmless.  Don't waste your money on quack remedies that are supposed to scrub the crusty deposits from your pineal gland, because they are useless at best (like drinking vinegar) and toxic at worst (such as consuming neem oil, which is used as a pesticide and can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, and seizures).

Of course, no article like this would be complete without a dig at the people who actually know what they're talking about:
However, to many scientists and rigid materialist thinkers, it is strictly an endocrine gland responsible for the secretion of the hormone melatonin, a substance which, among other things, aids in the regulation of our circadian rhythms.
Oh, those boring rigid materialists!  Always insisting that there be evidence for stuff!

The bottom line is: we still don't know a lot about the pineal gland, but that's no excuse to make shit up.  Let yourself not know something.  Better yet, read some actual scientific papers.  You'll learn stuff, which is cool.  In the long haul, it'll make you less likely to fall for absurd pseudoscientific nonsense of all sorts.  You might even turn into a "rigid materialist," which sounds way scarier than it actually is.


  1. No mention of dimethyltryptamine (DMT)? How about the pineal gland's role in the death process? Dreams? Creativity? Analysis a bit incomplete.

    'Seat of the soul' and 'mind's eye' are figurative terms, not meant to be taken quite so literally. However, nota bene: the pineal gland also has a lens, rods, and cones. But, I agree...that doesn't mean it was a third eye on our face at some point. Lol. Careful with quoting such nonsense as a consensus amongst a large, unspecified, number of people.

    You make a perfect point that it's uncertain at best if fluoride calcifies the gland based on the same occurrence in other species that don't ingest fluoride. However, "...if you failed high school chemistry, you are apparently allowed to claim that calcium phosphate (the material that is deposited in organs that calcify) is the same thing as fluoride.", is a bit of a straw man. What we ingest results in physiological responses in the body. Fluoride need not be the same as calcium phosphate; rather, it needs to only incur a calcifying response within the body. Things don't calcify in our bodies because we ingest calcium phosphate. Our body produces calcium phosphate on its own, as part of a response, that you are familiar with.

    "...there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality...The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."
    -Carl Sagan, A Demon-Haunted World

    1. There's no evidence of the pineal gland being involved in tryptamine production. That's a myth.

    2. And on your reaction about failing high school chemistry. Don't be so triggered.
      Besides, why do you think that fluoride would do that without leaving an identifiable trace?
      I think the author of this blog post was more in a mockery mood in stead of explaining it bare-bones to you, but I think he (obviously) means that there's no reason to think that.

  2. Gordon was not providing an analysis of the pineal gland. He provided a paragraph of factual source material of some of it's known functions in order to provide context for an argument against woo-woo assumption peddlers.

    When spirituality, third-eyes, and alternate planes of existence appear in the same paragraph, I advise you to be skeptical of the practicality and usefulness of the information you are reading.

    We can hack down straw men all day.

    Exercise improves cognitive function, which may improve one's attention span toward contemplation of spiritual topics.

    Which is NOT the same as saying "exercise improves spirituality."

    See the difference? I think Carl Sagan could.

  3. "As an example, consider the pineal gland." -- Sorry, but what follows after this is an analysis.

    Funny you mention being skeptical of alternate planes of existence...scientists call them dimensions and Carl Sagan spent a large period of his life trying to understand them:

    Nobody, said anything about proving spirituality via "If A then C" fallacies. You've denounced and employed straw man arguments in adjacent sentences...nicely done!

    Yeah, I see the difference. And, I'm on your side, believe it or not...but you're not. I'll re-quote Sagan since you missed it the first time:

    "...there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science...Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality...The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."
    -Carl Sagan, A Demon-Haunted World

    1. Hmm... No.
      The terms dimension and planes of existence are nothing alike in the slightest.
      This is the usual muddling of the multiple world's hypothesis, and dimensions.

      And there's literally no evidence of a "spiritual realm" nor any reason to believe there's any such thing.

    2. No, "dimensions" are things like width, height, depth and time. You're trying to talk about "universes," and it sounds like you don't know much about them, so you probably shouldn't... You're bastardizing that Sagan quote, too. He's denouncing this "god of the gaps" reasoning and saying that all things are natural, that there's no such thing as the supernatural, and there is wonder in the stars, not that there are "sacred" things "beyond understanding."

  4. nothing you've said actually proves any of the New Age claims. How about some actual, scientific testing for those claims, yes?

  5. "The bottom line is: we still don't know a lot about the pineal gland, but that's no excuse to make shit up."
    So you're saying that anything not said by a 21st century scientist is "made up?'
    Yogis have been talking about the third eye for a couple thousand years now, and their are ancient occult rituals that teach how to extract it for magical purposes.
    If my uncle had to wait on science to tell him whether or not something that "gurus' say were possible instead of trying it himself, his cancer would not have disappeared and the hospital doctors would have been correct about the 6 months they gave him. That was 12 years ago.

  6. "nothing you've said actually proves any of the New Age claims. How about some actual, scientific testing for those claims, yes?"

    Why would someone need to test something that they knew to be true? For your benefit?
    Do you realize that the average person has not the funding to obtain a lab and peer review? Do you realize that the scientific method is only good for material things? You cannot test whether a person has an imagination with it, for instance, because imagination is not a material thing. Does that mean that imagination does not exist?
    How are you going to get scientific approval for eating an infant's pineal; gland anyway? Sound kind of illegal to me.

    1. Yogis have not been talking about the third eye, they were talking about the eye of Shiva and nowhere does the eye of Shiva represent the Pineal Gland or even the third eye. There are no mention of a third eye in ancient Hindu text. It's all pseudo garbage.

  7. I don't know about the rest of it, but speaking directly about the "fluoride" issue with regards to calcification, apparently someone hasn't been reading the medical literature: Regarding Fluoride:
    Regarding diseases with a relationship to calcification:

    Now, whether it's possible to reverse the issue, who knows, because it hasn't been tested or studied. There obviously needs to be far more research on the topic in order to come to any kind of firm conclusion on the matter, but I think it important, as they say, to not postulate out your ass when you haven't even bothered to run a preliminary database search on the available journal articles from various medical periodicals. That would seem the first premise. Secondly, when one performs science, one is required to cite one's sources for publication when "claiming" things. Everyone posting made some lovely "claims", but for one reason or another, no one bothered (besides me) to cite sources.

  8. For the sake of ease, I'm posting the two article abstracts for those who don't want to bother with the links:

    The purpose was to discover whether fluoride (F) accumulates in the aged human pineal gland. The aims were to determine (a) F–concentrations of the pineal gland (wet), corresponding muscle (wet) and bone (ash); (b) calcium–concentration of the pineal. Pineal, muscle and bone were dissected from 11 aged cadavers and assayed for F using the HMDS–facilitated diffusion, F–ion–specific electrode method. Pineal calcium was determined using atomic absorption spectroscopy. Pineal and muscle contained 297±257 and 0.5±0.4 mg F/kg wet weight, respectively; bone contained 2,037±1,095 mg F/kg ash weight. The pineal contained 16,000±11,070 mg Ca/kg wet weight. There was a positive correlation between pineal F and pineal Ca (r = 0.73, p<0.02) but no correlation between pineal F and bone F. By old age, the pineal gland has readily accumulated F and its F/Ca ratio is higher than bone.

    Melatonin has been postulated to have diverse properties, acting as an antioxidant, a neuroprotector, or a stabilizer within the circadian timing system, and is thus thought to be involved in the aging process and Alzheimer's disease (AD). We used computed tomography to determine the degree of pineal calcification (DOC), an intra-individual melatonin deficit marker, as well as the size of uncalcified pineal tissue, in 279 consecutive memory clinic outpatients (AD: 155; other dementia: 25; mild cognitive impairment: 33; depression: 66) and 37 age-matched controls. The size of uncalcified pineal tissue in patients with AD (mean 0.15 cm2 [S.D. 0.24]) was significantly smaller than in patients with other types of dementia (0.26 [0.34]; P = 0.038), with depression (0.28 [0.34]; P = 0.005), or in controls (0.25 [0.31]; P = 0.027). Additionally, the DOC in patients with AD (mean 76.2% [S.D. 26.6]) was significantly higher than in patients with other types of dementia (63.7 [34.7]; P = 0.042), with depression (60.5 [33.8]; P = 0.001), or in controls (64.5 [30.6]; P = 0.021). These two findings may reflect two different aspects of melatonin in AD. On the one hand, the absolute amount of melatonin excretion capability, as indicated by uncalcified pineal volume, refers to the antioxidant properties of melatonin. On the other hand, the relative reduction in melatonin production capability in the individual, as indicated by DOC, refers to the circadian properties of melatonin.

  9. ...

    In other words, there is potentially some correlation between calcium phosphate and fluoride levels in the pineal gland with respect to calcification. This may be impacting the production of key neurochemicals such as melatonin or other chemicals such as the naturally produced psychotropic DHT.

    Also, what might be referred to as "altered states of consciousness" in psychology/psychiatry during tests, and the disturbingly similar experiences described by patients who were administered DHT, may well explain some of the comments about the Pineal glad. Strictly speaking, if it is correct that the pineal glad produces DHT and DHT is responsible for altered states of consciousness (ASoC), dreaming, etc., that these people are referring to, there may be some merit (albeit in a round about and uncritical sort of way) to the claims made. I'm not sure where these claims originated or how some of these people came up with these proposals. It seems dubious without proper citation and correlation to medical and other scientific literature. Still, there does appear to be some correlation between reduced DHT and melatonin production (if not other, as yet, undetected chemicals produced in the pineal gland) due to or occurring in conjunction with gland calcification with deposits of calcium, phosphorus, and fluoride, altered states of consciousness (related to sleep and DHT), the human sleep cycle (DHT/Melatonin), and the development of neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer's disease and various forms of Dementia). Like I said, whether this occurs as a result of calcification or is a co-ocurring factor (whatever is causing the neurodegenerative diseases is simultaneously causing or speeding up the process of clacification of the pineal gland) has yet to be established. Nevertheless, some degree of corrolation exists. So claiming there is no relationship between a disease and the calcification of the pineal gland is a false statement. Science is determined by repeated actions of falsification (Popper). Ergo, your claim is false and should be retracted or abridged to note the literature.

    Furthermore, with specific regard to DHT production or occurrence in the pineal gland:;jsessionid=D11C622A7E20E95DB2CC7EDDD5BAEE96.f02t04

  10. It also appears that DHT may modulate innate and adaptive inflammatory responses:

    The orphan receptor sigma-1 (sigmar-1) is a transmembrane chaperone protein expressed in both the central nervous system and in immune cells. It has been shown to regulate neuronal differentiation and cell survival, and mediates anti-inflammatory responses and immunosuppression in murine in vivo models. Since the details of these findings have not been elucidated so far, we studied the effects of the endogenous sigmar-1 ligands N,N-dimethyltryptamine (NN-DMT), its derivative 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT) and the synthetic high affinity sigmar-1 agonist PRE-084 hydrochloride on human primary monocyte-derived dendritic cell (moDCs) activation provoked by LPS, polyI:C or pathogen-derived stimuli to induce inflammatory responses. Co-treatment of moDC with these activators and sigma-1 receptor ligands inhibited the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-1β, IL-6, TNFα and the chemokine IL-8, while increased the secretion of the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10. The T-cell activating capacity of moDCs was also inhibited, and dimethyltryptamines used in combination with E. coli or influenza virus as stimulators decreased the differentiation of moDC-induced Th1 and Th17 inflammatory effector T-cells in a sigmar-1 specific manner as confirmed by gene silencing. Here we demonstrate for the first time the immunomodulatory potential of NN-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT on human moDC functions via sigmar-1 that could be harnessed for the pharmacological treatment of autoimmune diseases and chronic inflammatory conditions of the CNS or peripheral tissues. Our findings also point out a new biological role for dimethyltryptamines, which may act as systemic endogenous regulators of inflammation and immune homeostasis through the sigma-1 receptor.

    In other words, it helps regulate the life and death cycles of cellular tissue. If the Pineal gland is either the main producer or receptor of this chemical in the human and mammalian body, then it would follow that if for some reason calcification directly diminished the production of DHT or somehow interfered with its normal biological process, potentially leading to or acting as a direct co-occurring/enhancing factor in the production of neurodegenerative diseases, then the claim that calcification being a "problem" or "area of concern" would hold.

  11. That doesn't mean that it will give you "magical powers", though if something enhanced the production of DHT by the gland (assuming it produces it, which I am stating as a tentative potential hypothesis) or its production elsewhere, and the person was not experiencing calcification, then it could cause hallucinatory effects. In other words, more DHT production = seeing weird shit, tripping, having out of body experience, etc., basically, you're hallucinating. Now, is that conclusive? No. But, it does provide sufficient demonstrable evidence to make studying the question thoroughly a meaningful enterprise.

    In other words, while their reasoning may be incredibly flawed, they may have stumbled upon a causal connection—the pineal gland, neurodegenerative disease, and hallucinatory episodes.

    What I'd like to know: does fluoride enhance or have a causal relationship with the co-occurring calcium phosphate deposits in the pineal gland during calcification? Do they both just get deposited or does fluoride actually enhance the depositing of calcium phosphate in the pineal gland, the crystallization of the pineal gland?

    There are considerable unanswered questions, but there's enough material out there to provide some rather fascinating questions.

    Now, as you say, if only the cranks would bother applying rigorous science to their own claims rather than just spewing random gibberish.

    Also, I find it rather interesting that people keep making claims like, "It doesn't appear in any ancient Hindu text." Alright. Nice claim, but what's your evidence? Did your run a database search on all texts in all translations, search the literature in question, have personal experience reading the literature, are you an expert in the field, or are you just pulling crap out of your ass? Not intended as deroggatory commentary, just asking, since it's a rather bold claim to be made without so much as a single reference to back up your claims.

    Furthermore, any claims I've made here are tentative at best.

    And yes, please keep the quotes in context.

    Alright, moving on [since this is a freaking old ass post that no one probably is even bothering to read anymore]...