Saturday, October 3, 2009

More of The Lost Symbol, Noetic Sciences, and the Pineal Gland

So, a little while back, I posted a bit on the so-called "Noetic Sciences" which feature in the new Dan Brown novel The Lost Symbol.  Briefly, the "Noetic Sciences" refers to research conducted by a group called the Institute for Noetic Sciences (IONS) which was founded by astronaut Edgar Mitchell to study parapsychology (think Ghostbusters).  While topics like "healing from a distance (with thought) and other "mind over matter" type ideas can be tested experimentally, there is no evidence suggesting that these things are possible.  Thus, institutes like IONS, which claim to be making progress on these fronts, get relegated to the categories of pseudoscience and quackery.
Anyway, my point here is not to beat up on IONS because I don't really know how much real science and how much pseudoscience is going on there. Rather I would like to try and correct some of the neuroscience myths that showed up as I was finishing The Lost Symbol.
One in particular I want to take issue with is a line toward the end of the book when the character Katherine Solomon describes the pineal gland:
“Perhaps you’ve heard… about the brain scans taken of yogis while they meditate? The human brain, in advanced states of focus, will physically create a waxlike substance from the pineal gland. This brain secretion is unlike anything else in the body. It has an incredible healing effect, can literally regenerate cells, and may be one of the reasons yogis live so long. This is real science, Robert. This substance has inconceivable properties and can be created only by a mind that has been highly tuned to a deeply focused state.”
Now, I know a lot of people have trouble realizing that Dan Brown writes FICTION, and so I think its important to relate that this claim about the pineal gland is false.  First, we know what the pineal body (aka pineal gland) is, and what it does.  And what it secretes is not some mysterious waxy substance that can magically heal people, but a hormone called melatonin, which, helps to regulate our circadian rhythms, otherwise known as our sleep/wake cycle.  Melatonin is not, as far as I know, "waxlike", nor can it cure leprosy (or anything else), nor is it "unlike anything else in the body".  What melatonin can do is tell you when you should be tired and go to sleep (in fact, for a long time, it was thought that the sleepiness you feel after thanksgiving dinner was caused by a large amount of tryptophan in the turkey, where tryptophan is an amino acid that can actually be converted to melatonin in the body.  Although there is no evidence to support that tryptophan causes sleepiness (I will likely devote a whole post to this when we get closer to Thanksgiving).  Also, as you can see in the figure below, serotonin is the intermediate between tryptophan and melatonin, and, as you can see from the chemical diagrams serotonin is not so different from melatonin, though it does serve different functions (most notably as a neurotransmitter, of which, having too little seems to be a major factor in depression and other psychological disorders).  But, different function aside, I don't know if I would go so far as to say nothing else like melatonin is made anywhere else in the body.

Additionally, its important to consider that we first discovered melatonin in the brains of lab animals.  In order to get melatonin from humans samples would have to be taken from the brains of  human patients who have had to have brain tissue removed, or after they have passed away, or isolated from blood samples.  The Dan Brown book claims that scientists isolated this waxy substance from the pineal from the brains of yogis just after they finished meditating.  If this were true, the scientists would have had to anesthetize the yogis and then perform highly risky and invasive neurosurgery to get to the pineal and extract this substance.  Not only would this have been completely unethical and illegal, but the surgery would either have to have been performed twice on each subject (once before meditating and once after) or on twice as many yogis (half who meditated and half who didn't).  Needless to say, no study like this has been done, and if this mystical substance does refer to melatonin, it is not really waxy, as it dissolves easily in blood, and is refined as a white powder when it is isolated.

So where did Dan Brown get this idea?  My only guess is that there are a couple of studies that suggest meditation can increase the body's production of melatonin, which we assume is coming from the pineal, but could just as easily be the result of the melatonin that is already present in the blood not being broken down by the kidneys (there's no way to know because in studies like these, the melatonin levels are measured in the circulation).  However, given the prevalence of melatonin on the supplement shelves and the number of studies showing that additional melatonin doesn't have any dramatic or convincing healing effects (or even helpful effects with insomnia and other sleeping disorders unless you already have really low levels of melatonin), I would hesitate to call it a "waxlike substance with healing properties".

28 comments:

  1. You mentioned, "we know what the pineal body (aka pineal gland) is, and what it does", as if our scientific knowledge is somehow complete. I'm certain most agree would we have yet to discover all there is to know on the subject. Furthermore, it should be noted that the pineal gland also secretes pinealin and lysine vasopressin, remarkable substances in their own right, as well as potentially secreting norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and histamine.

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  2. true. I apologize for my error. when it comes to the brain, I don't think we know everything there is to know about anything. I was simply caught up in my zeal for debunking the idea of some "waxy healing substance" being extracted from the brains of yogis. thanks for the comment, and the correction

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  3. When i read this part in the book my first thought was of DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) which is also secreted by the pineal gland. It is associated with altered states of consciousness and based on the books ideas of out-of-body experiences and such it seems to kind of fit. I'm not so sure about the idea that it can regenerate cells but who knows...

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  4. I'm not aware of any demonstrated healing effects of DMT. I know that superphysiological doses can cause hallucinations and euphoria, and that it is hypothesized to be involved in sleep/wake cycles and dreaming at physiological levels, however, my immediate thought was melatonin as there are studies to show that circulating levels of melatonin are increased after meditating, and other studies to show that melatonin's antioxidant properties can be neuroprotective against brain injury or other neurodegenerative insults. That is, melatonin can help prevent damage to cells and prevent those cells from dying (much like other antioxidants) but there is insufficient evidence to suggest that melatonin has healing or reparative actions. It may be possible, but there are still too many unanswered questions to say whether or not this is true. Even if melatonin is shown to repair an injury at the cellular level, then questions would still remain as to whether or not meditation is capable of increasing melatonin levels enough to have such an effect, or if dietary supplements would have an effect. Additionally, once the right dose is found, we would have to see if supplementing melatonin has any side effects that are damaging, or outweigh the beneficial effects. For now, I think it better to err on the side of caution.

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  5. Also, DMT is very similar to serotonin, so I wouldn't say it is "unlike anything else in the body", but then, I wouldn't say that about melatonin either (which is also very similar to serotonin)

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  6. The book is fiction, we know that. So there are a lot of things in the book that are not true, but when I read the passage it says "...the brain SCANS of the yogis WHILE they meditate?" He never says anything about doctors performing surgery to extract the substance. Anyhow, I have no experience with this, but can a brain scan or cat scan identify secretions from a gland? Obviously, if it could, I don't think it could differentiate between the viscosity of the secretion to determine if it was waxlike or not. But could a brain scan detect a secretion from a gland? And has anyone ever heard of a Yogi going days without eating?

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    1. Come to India , Go to Himalayas , You ll be answered.

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  7. As far as I know Yogi was renowned for eating constantly as was his friend Boo Boo in Jellystone Park.
    Apparently they're fictional as well. Who knew!? ;)

    TexMex

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  8. Maybe I'm stating the bleeding obvious here but if Melatonin is involved in the regulation of circadian rhythms and it's presence in the blood is increased following meditation, could we assume the semi-conscious state meditation creates is akin to the sleeping.

    And could we also assume that the restorative properties of sleep can be tapped into whilst meditating?

    I wouldn't go so far to say yogis can channel the healing properties of sleep but it makes sense to me that through meditation, a biofeedback loop can be created which accelerates healing much like sleeping.

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  9. I think that the idea that they introduce in the book is fasinating, and we never know what is real. I mean when early scientist suggested new ideas they were like shunned from the church!!! AND they were right about their theories (for now) So... Dan Brown might be onto somthing, cause he does a lot of research for his books. So he can prolly make an educated guess...

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  10. BW it seems as though you are learning a lot from your own skeptisism and dis-belief. Are you still certain Dan Brown's claim about the pineal gland is false? Perhaps your becoming a believer... or realizing that anything that is possible may not be impossible. Think about it.

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  11. I used to meditate 2x a day. During this time I could identify others who meditated if I stood close to them. The best way to describe how this happened is I experiienced the feeling that something was tickling my brain. I quit meditating when I graduated college and almost immediately lost that ability. I know this doesn't reference the pineal gland discussion, but it does reference the parts of the book dealing with the collective mind. Napo

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  12. Just a thought but as you pointed out the book is one of fiction..... so why do you feel the need to so strongly 'debunk'the words in it?

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  13. It's important to de-bunk because, although the book IS fiction, the very first page leads you to believe that the science is NOT:

    "All rituals, SCIENCE, artwork and monuments in this novel are real."

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  14. Didn't take me much looking arround to find a lot of scientific studies supporting health bennefits of melatonin

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  15. It is interesting to read some of the comments here. As an Indian, I used to practice yoga at a very young age, incited by my mother. The comment about meditation replacing sleep is something that was taught to me by my guru repeatedly and something which I practiced for a while. Though I did not understand the science behind it at that time, it hit me at a later point in life, long after I stopped meditation. And the other comment about sensing others close enough when you are meditating, that happened to me personally as well. And yes, though Dan Brown's work might be fiction, I think it cries out the obvious ideas that our Scriptures were trying to tell us... all of us, bound by a common thread of spirituality, having multiple forms of the same idea and ridiculously fighting like children for one's own faith. Just my $.02...

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  16. Going back to the melatonin. You said: "hormone called melatonin, which, helps to regulate our circadian rhythms, otherwise known as our sleep/wake cycle." Science has proven that ppl who get their uninterruped 7 hours of sleep a night show less signs of aging and live longer...which any women who practices anti-aging remedies knows that proper cell replenishment/repair is the major step to fight wrinkles...hence "beauty sleep". So is it so hard to believe that high amounts of melatonin could make you live longer? As for the "waxy" part...really i think everyone is missing the point by getting caught up in the logistics.

    What Dan Brown was getting at is "lost knowledge". we try to fight diseases and age with unnatural things like synethic chemcials when what you need to cure diseases is literally inside of you. And isn't that what every great phrophet/religious sect throughout the ages and world have always said? (except for Christrianity who don't believe in that sorta "witch craft"...but Jesus does touch on the subject.)

    What I got outta that book was Dan Brown's way of trying to make us aware of lost knowledge of the human body's capabilities and how powerful we are and don't even know it b/c we are no longer taught how to control our brain which is the "operating system" to the "computer". Everything we need is supplied within us. This is why he referred to us "gods". If we were made in "his" image then we must be gods ourselves and the ancients knew how to touch on our "god-like) abilities. Slowly, with the wide spread of Christrianity we are loosing that knowledge. One has to wonder what the hidden agenda is? No?

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    1. Your spelling is atrocious.

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  17. After quitting my job in the city and moving to a small coastal town, i focused more on my internal processes and human growth. With the solitude and natural surrounds, i found myself constantly inspired and learning. Within a few weeks i had started to write a thesis on the power of thought, creation through destruction and the balance between dark and light. The day i showed my mother the starting few pages of the thesis she handed me The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. She had only read the first four chapters herself, as she had been caught up reading another novel. As i read, it continually blew my mind. Everything i had been writing about was being mentioned. As i read the definition of Noetics, i realised i was living a physical example. What i was creating and focusing on was being reflected back at me. I ended my work on the thesis and started looking up history and anyone who could 'debunk' the ideas being put forward. And here i am. One thing i must mention; fiction or not, all knowledge is real and all knowledge plays its part. The difference between a scientist exploring theories and an author pondering ideas only exists to the closed mind. Much Love

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  18. @Johnathan The measurements show, for the first time, that one can be completely aware in such a deep state - that one can consciously experience and control the brain's activity simultaneously. This confirms that meditation is a fourth major state, equal to dreaming, sleeping and wakefulness.Here's the link for the rest of the article.http://www.yogameditation.com/articles/issues_of_bindu/bindu_11/pictures_of_the_brain_s_activity_during_yoga_nidra

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  19. Thanks for this interesting information.

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  20. What I enjoy about The Lost Symbol is it expresses the idea that we are all greater than we may believe. I don't think the benefits of meditation or that it creates physiological changes can be questioned. Waxy substance? Sounds unlikely.

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  21. Sleep Disorders are affecting people around the world by the millions, yet most don't realize how wide spread they really are. You could be suffering from one and perhaps not even know it. Here's some information to help you understand the various categories of disorders out there.

    entramax

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  22. So I have a weird question and no this is no joke I need some opinions. lol First off lets say I'm not insane, or crazy, actually I am an intellectual and recently I had a migraine and had to go to the er for it, they did a cat scan and found a "tumor" on my pit gland, then a mri showed it to be a growth, tests after tests proved doctors have no idea what it is, it's size is quite large, the gland should be the size of a dime, it's a quarters size, the growth is perfectly centered in my head, I seen the pictures, it's putting no pressure on anything, directly above my nostrils, between the eyes, and attached at the bridge of my nose, so here's where it gets weird, I have underwent my own training called auric training, basically teaching myself to manipulate the energy the body releases, it has improved my vision which was already perfect, my hearing, everything, my ability to process information has went up to the point I can detect a lights flicker when noone else does, oh another thing the "growth" just happens to be on the spot on the pit gland that affects vision, ik this isn't mainstream science here, I've been able to observe the aura's of the body for some time now, oh and even more info all my secretions from the pit gland, are normal so far, testosterone (unrelated) was low. My question I guess is how likely do any of you find it that the pit gland could grow? As I said I find no coincidence in it's perfect alignment in my head, it's amazing size, (that previous scans in the past didn't show) my increased senses, and that it's size fits in with no cancers or known growths the doctors can identify, I've baffled all the doctors I've been to and want some more inputs to go threw. Oh and time of Auric training has been 4 years and my previous MRI was 4 years ago when I was 16. I'm just asking for opinions any "actual" help would be appreciated.

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  23. Just finished Lost Symbol this AM and as a meditation teacher, that very quote caught my attention (which is how I found this thread)!! I appreciate the open dialog about the truth or fiction. Sounds like there is so much more to learn in this area...but I can tell you by personal testimonial that certain meditation techniques can be the gateway to healing. In Dec 2009, I was sick frequently, had severe anemia, insomniac, digestive issues and early cancer in my blood. I started meditating & self awareness practices in Feb 2010 - 2 times a day and within 6-9 months ALL of my health issues vanished! It took some patience and disapline but as of this writing I still have a clean bill of health and haven't been majorly sick except for one 48 hr head cold in July '13 - to me it's been an outstanding experience. My observation, I believe when I meditate, I'm walking into my own personal pharmacy and letting the body's intelligence make it's way back to homeostasis or balance on it's own and secreting all sorts of chemicals needed (and it changes based on what my body needs). Not to say I wouldn't use medical treatment if warranted, but it hasn't been necessary. For @steven, interesting experience, I don't doubt you have changed your brain (we can do so with our mind), stay informed and balanced with the practice. You may want to google "Harvard Mass General Meditation" and see the results of research where meditation increased the size of hippopotamus and reduced size of the amigdala. There may be further research about pin gland growth or you may want to contact the researchers directly with your question. Thanks Brad!

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  24. As a yogi, I can only attest that meditation and intentions do have very strong healing effects as I experiment them on myself everyday. The power of the thoughts : placebo and nocebo effects have been long proven. As they say in the book, we are only now with science able to start proving was have been long known. It is the same with the brain, the pineal gland, etc. we have made great progress but don't know everything there is to know about it yet.
    I read in the news couple of days ago that scientists have discovered there are lymphatic vessels in the brain and that the brain was connected to our immunity system!!

    So wax like or no waxlike ;) doesn't really matter to me. Still would be interesting to know and help people who can't rely on "faith" realize that yes, we can create our own really only with our brain.

    I was so surprise about where this story brought us... I see more and more people awakening, starting to do yoga and believing in things they would never have before. and. That's exactly what it talks about : Mass consciousness is in it's way. So exciting!
    Sorry if I'm stepping here a bit out if subject ;)

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  25. Melatonin is significant for its effects on our mood, immune function, circadian rhythms, and the quality and quantity of our sleep. Melatonin is known as an anti-aging and anti-stress agent because it both suppresses cortisol and is a powerful antioxidant.

    We sleep to give the body a break to regenerate and heal, thus if sleep activates the auto-healing our bodies naturally do, then melatonin is the catalyst to this healing. Also, melatonin strengthens the immune system which in itself is healing boost.

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  26. I am Sophie from Canada, I once suffered from a terrible and Chronic pineal cyst ,since i was 30 , the doctor told me there was no permanent cure i was given medications to slow down its progress, i constantly felt my health was deteriorating as i constantly go out of breath,and this illness was really terrible especially when am going out with my friends, i have this constant disorder for about 15 years, this was really a terrible ailment ,on thin one day that i was going through the internet,and i came across a post of Mrs Shelley on how his husband was been cured from pineal cyst through the help of Dr Williams herbal product, I contacted this herbal doctor via his email and explain everything to him and make purchase of his product,few days later he sent me the herbal medicine through courier service, when i received the herbal medicine, i used it for 1 months as prescribed by Dr Williams and i was totally cured within those week of usage,on thin now i have not experience any sign or characteristics again . for more information you can email him on drwilliams098675@gmail.com for help

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