The pineal gland is a small endocrine gland in the brain of most vertebrates. The pineal gland produces melatonin, a serotonin-derived hormone which modulates sleep patterns in both circadian and seasonal cycles. The shape of the gland resembles a pine cone from which it derived its name. The pineal gland is located in the epithalamus, near the center of the brain, between the two hemispheres, tucked in a groove where the two halves of the thalamus join. The pineal gland is one of the neuroendocrine secretory circumventricular organs in which capillaries are mostly permeable to solutes in the blood.
The results of various scientific research in evolutionary biology, comparative neuroanatomy and neurophysiology have explained the evolutionary history (phylogeny) of the pineal gland in different vertebrate species. From the point of view of biological evolution, the pineal gland represents a kind of atrophied photoreceptor. In the epithalamus of some species of amphibians and reptiles, it is linked to a light-sensing organ, known as the parietal eye, which is also called the pineal eye or third eye.
René Descartes believed the human pineal gland to be the “principal seat of the soul”. Academic philosophy among his contemporaries considered the pineal gland as a neuroanatomical structure without special metaphysical qualities; science studied it as one endocrine gland among many.
Seventeenth-century philosopher and scientist René Descartes was highly interested in anatomy and physiology. He discussed the pineal gland both in his first book, the Treatise of Man (written before 1637, but only published posthumously 1662/1664), and in his last book, The Passions of the Soul (1649) and he regarded it as “the principal seat of the soul and the place in which all our thoughts are formed.” In the Treatise of Man, Descartes described conceptual models of man, namely creatures created by God, which consist of two ingredients, a body and a soul. In the Passions, Descartes split man up into a body and a soul and emphasized that the soul is joined to the whole body by “a certain very small gland situated in the middle of the brain’s substance and suspended above the passage through which the spirits in the brain’s anterior cavities communicate with those in its posterior cavities”. Descartes attached significance to the gland because he believed it to be the only section of the brain to exist as a single part rather than one-half of a pair. Most of Descartes’s basic anatomical and physiological assumptions were totally mistaken, not only by modern standards, but also in light of what was already known in his time.
The notion of a “pineal-eye” is central to the philosophy of the French writer Georges Bataille, which is analyzed at length by literary scholar Denis Hollier in his study Against Architecture. In this work Hollier discusses how Bataille uses the concept of a “pineal-eye” as a reference to a blind-spot in Western rationality, and an organ of excess and delirium. This conceptual device is explicit in his surrealist texts, The Jesuve and The Pineal Eye.
In the late 19th century Madame Blavatsky (who founded theosophy) identified the pineal gland with the Hindu concept of the third eye, or the Ajna chakra. This association is still popular today.
In the short story “From Beyond” by H. P. Lovecraft, a scientist creates an electronic device that emits a resonance wave, which stimulates an affected person’s pineal gland, thereby allowing them to perceive planes of existence outside the scope of accepted reality, a translucent, alien environment that overlaps our own recognized reality. It was adapted as a film of the same name in 1986. The 2013 horror film Banshee Chapter is heavily influenced by this short story.