The Scientific Basis for the Spiritual Concept of the Third Eye
Eastern spiritual paths and certain occult traditions have emphasised the concept of the “Third Eye”. This psycho-physical feature was correlated in diagrams, artwork and explanations as being situated approximately above the physical eyes, in the middle of the forehead, and just above the central line of the nose.
The “Third Eye” was described as the seat of intuitive wisdom, of clairvoyance, of subtle information and spiritual or occult power. The famous French philosopher Rene Descarte believed that the Third Eye was the point where the mind and body met and so he coined it the “seat of the soul”.
The Third eye is a significant point in both Bodymind science as well as neuroscience, and these two disciplines may shed light on why this point in the body has such significant reality for the processes of consciousness as well as for our wellness and overall reality.
If one looks anatomically at this point on the skull then one finds that just behind the skull in this central point lies the Pineal Gland. The Pineal Gland is a small but critical hormonal gland in our body. The Pineal Gland is considered a regulating or master gland inasmuch as it regulates the cycles within our bodies, and stimulates the production of many of the other hormones and glands in the body.
The critical cycle in all this is the light and dark cycle which is how the Pineal Gland responds to the cycle of sunlight and darkness in our environment. This is known as the Circadian Rhythm or cycle. This is critically important for human mental and physical health and is primarily dictated by stable cycles or patterns of rest and waking which are assisted by the timely production of hormones that facilitate these night and day states.
Many people are familiar with Melatonin as its the pill you are often prescribed when travelling in different time zones, or for sleep disorders, or when suffering Jet Lag. Melatonin is the key hormone that is produced by the Pineal Gland. Melatonin is activated and produced based on whether this light sensitive Pineal gland detects natural light external to the body.
Melatonin production is critically important for humans as it has been linked to our survival, sexuality and psychological senses due to its subsequent triggering of other critical hormonal and organ processes in each of us. Melatonin is produced by the Pineal Gland modifying the feel-good hormone Serotonin found in the brain.
Serotonin is also a critical hormone found in the body, and is found in only very small amounts in the brain. Overall low Serotonin levels are a classic symptom and outcome of Depression. One of the problems with Depression is the resulting depletion of Serotonin also can rob the brain of its already low amounts of this critical chemical.
If the Pineal Gland then cannot source enough Serotonin and so produce enough Melatonin in that depressed person, sleep disorders can arise (which is a common symptom of Depression Sufferers). What is worse is that the Pineal Gland can then in turn also have a disruptive effect on other cycles or the Circadian Rhythm of the body, and so other problems and negative effects can arise for that person.
Likewise the absence of the triggering or stimulating effect of natural sunlight and its Ultra-violet component will also create a similar disruptive effect. In climates of the earth where sunlight is weak, clouded or periodically restricted, we find a related condition called Seasonal Adjustment Disorder (SAD). SAD looks and feels just like depression because of the similar effects that arise from the interrupted action of the Pineal Gland and how that influences the bodymind outcome of that person.
A contrast to this is the effect of exposing oneself in a relaxed way in the sun (sunburn excluded). The positive effect of being out in the natural sunshine and getting a good dose of sunlight is increased Pineal Gland production of Melatonin and also of Serotonin due to related but separate processes of the body, brain and Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). I always recommend depression sufferers to get out of their cold dark bedrooms and into the sun and into their bodies so they can let their natural healing responses of the Pineal gland and other Bodymind processes do their positive work.
Interestingly Schizophrenics and Bi-Polar disorder sufferers have been found to either have low Serotonin or fluctuating levels of the same hormone in their body over time. Our psychological health is very much influenced by these critical hormones and glands in our body.
Serotonin and Melatonin have spiritual links to human consciousness as each is needed and involved in how the brain executes higher orders of consciousness. This is probably why in Hindu and Buddhist literature we see the Third Eye as being the Bodymind point of higher consciousness or the spiritual centre in man.
Neuroscience also informs us of this reality. Brain scans done with PET imaging equipment show that when a person meditates there is a lot of activity triggered in the medial prefrontal cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex lies in the same general area of the “third eye” of occult and eastern spiritual literature. Brain research informs us that people who regularly meditate actually physically evolve their brain structures with neural changes that promote higher consciousness.
Firstly, the medial pre-frontal cortex is thought by Neuroscientists to be part of the cognitive (mental) processing system of humans and appears to play a inhibitory calming or influencing role over the emotional or limbic part of the brain. This part of the brain also has been found to mediate and down-regulate the production of the stress hormone known as cortisol that is produced via the Hypothalamic-Pituitary gland-Adrenal gland axis (HPA axis) when a person is stressed.
The signalling by the medial prefrontal cortex appears to regulate the generalization of fear and can dampen an overall increase in escalation of fear mediated by the Amygdala, which is the part of the brain that evokes a “fight or flight” response in us all. This is believed to be partly why meditation and mindfulness practices can assist anxiety and trauma sufferers to “dampen” down arousal symptoms in their nervous system and brain function.
Neuroimaging or brain scans have confirmed that meditators actually shrink their Amygdala over time. This is important as it reduces a person reactive “fight or flight” triggers and increases the tolerance of arousal that a person can take on until they activate that emotional “fight or flight” state of being. Such a person becomes able to be emotionally stable and in present time as a result of such changes. This equates to an aspect of the Buddhist concept mindfulness.
Secondly and more specifically, a part of the brain known as the Orbitofrontal Cortex lies just above the orbit of the eyes and forms part of the frontal lobe in the area that correlates to the “third eye”. This piece of brain facilitates direct inputs from many other cortical and sub-cortical areas of the brain. It also sends or signals outwards other forms of information and signals to the same and different cortical and subcortical regions of the brain.
The wealth of incoming information provides a snapshot of what is happening in the external environment as well as what reactions and plans are being organised by other parts of the brain. Critically its output communication affect a variety of behaviours and physiological responses, including emotional and ANS responses organised by the Amygdala part of the brain.
It is this mediating function that apparently helps us integrate external experience with internal states, and also allows us to influence states of being in the body and to raise our window of tolerance of arousal from internal and external sources of discomfort. This is speculated as being the vehicle by which Siddhis and spiritual people can alter their own bodily functions such as heart rate, blood flow, pain thresholds etc when you see them demonstrating unusual “tricks” that appear painful or which would signal injury or death in the rest of us.
The Orbitofrontal Cortex is also an area of brain that “lights up” in brain scans when meditation and visualisation occurs. If one notices that the “outputs” go to mental centres, emotional centres, physiological processes, and memory areas of the brain then an interesting correlation should be noted. In meditation it is stressed that one should develop the correct logical thoughts or reasoning (mental), develop a strong feeling (emotional), create a stable visualisation (memory), and have correct meditative posture (physiological posture) when doing so.
In effect it is speculation but perhaps this is the critical reason why advancing one’s spiritual realisations require the alignment of each of these key areas. The implication is that the Orbitofrontal Cortex may “update” our Bodymind reality across these different cortical and subcortical areas of brain function. A comprehensive set of new information may in turn shape our operative reality, which is the basis for the creation of “realisation” in humans as a deep personal experience, as against just a mental conceptual knowledge of the same object.
Neuroimaging not only shows that meditators shrunk their Amgdala over time, but also that their Hippocampus increases over time. The Hippocampus is commonly associated with memory function, and is part of the temporal lobe of the brain. It appears that the Hippocampus plays a key part in consciousness by shaping conscious or declarative thinking and also mediating learnt responses from past associations with incoming sensory data.
It is known that trauma and continued stress can damage Hippocampus cells via the action of the stress hormone Cortisol which creates cell damage and shrinkage of the Hippocampus. Apparently meditation can reverse or repair some of this damage and facilitates growth of the Hippocampus area of the brain. Meditation has been shown to have a calming effect on the Bodymind system and promotes a relaxed feel-good, parasympathetic state of the ANS outcome. Immune system repair of the body needs such a state to exist for healing to occur and be sustained.
In conclusion it can be seen that there is now more evidence emerging that the point in the body known as the “third eye” correlates to the same physical location of brain and gland functions which have direct impacts on our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual states of being, as well as states of consciousness.
The set of processes and outcomes that the Pineal Gland, the Medial Prefrontal Cortex, and Orbitofrontal Cortex shape and influence, could be realistically summarised and spoken of in spiritual and occultic terminology that we read from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, as well as the more hidden arcane schools of occult tradition.
It may be that over time science will validate many of these spiritual truths and statements as being based in scientific and medical fact. Only time and further advances in Neuroscience, Neuropsychology, and Human Biology will tell.
- Trauma and the Body – A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy; Ogden Pat etal, 2006, Norton & Co Publishers.
- Mapping The Brain: Carter R.;2003, Phoenix Books.
- “God’s Gland Design!”, Ivory Shaun, 2011, Irelands Own magazine, March 2011.
- The Healing Power of Emotion, 2010, Edited by Fosha Diana, Siegel Daniel etal, W.WW Norton & Company, New York.
- “Where Science and The Occult Meet “, Davern Michael, 2010, Tapestry Magazine.