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article imageDescartes' Pineal Gland Resurfaces As fMRI Scans Show Activation During Meditation

By Angelique van Engelen     Dec 17, 2007 in Science
A recent experiment conducted by scientists shows that the pineal gland might truly be the 'seat of the soul', as Rene Descartes suggested in 1649. A report in Newscientist detailing the findings of a brainscan experiment suggests as much.
The pineal gland was seen activated as people embarked on their meditation. Not only the gland itself 'lit up', but also the surrounding areas when test persons self induced a mood for meditation by reciting mantras.
"There is no definition of 'soul' in the scientific field," Jyh-Horng Chen was quoted as saying. He was the co-leader of the study which was conducted by the National Taiwan University in Taipei. "However, our results demonstrate a correlation between pineal activation and religious meditation which might have profound implications in the physiological understanding of mind, spirit and soul."
As many as 11 men and 9 women participated in the study. All practiced a meditation technique called Chinese original quiet sitting. Chen and his colleagues took fMRI scans of their brains and witnessed that their pineal areas were most active when the meditation just started. Apparently during this phase, practitioners silently recite religious mantras to induce a facilitating frame of mind. The second phase is relaxation which takes a lot longer.
Studies into consciousness are among the most controversial scientifically and the fMRI scans although useful, will likely be the subject of a plethora of interpretations. "With consciousness, there is no agreement on anything," says Giulio Tononi, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, "except it's very difficult." He was quoted in an article that appeared in the DallasNews newspaper recently, authored by Joel Achenbach, who's a Washington Post staff writer.
'We're waiting for our Einstein", Jim Olds told Achenbach. Olds heads up the Krasnow Institute, a think tank of the George Mason University which focuses its efforts on the study of the mind. At a recent conference organized by the Institute, high profile authorities on the subject of consciousness called on the US government to fund research into the mystery of human consciousness to the tune of $4 billion. Their initiative was entitled "Decade of the Mind" and if it takes off, it will be the follow-up to a 1990s program called the "Decade of the Brain." The latter initiative focused on neuroscience. Olds and consorts want to take this part of science to the next level and out of the domain of philosophers, theologians and mountaintop yogis only.
A letter published recently in the journal Science suggests that Decade of the Mind is needed to understand issues like mental illness too, which alone costs more than $400 billion a year, they said. The letter, signed by ten scientists, pointed out that 50 million US citizens suffer from mental illness. The real excitement, likely, of the scientists will be the spurt of development that would take place in the production of sentient machines, a quest that humanity has been after for centuries. "A breakthrough in mind research, the scientists wrote, could have "broad and dramatic impacts on the economy, national security and our social well-being." MRIs allow scientists to observe the brain at work in real time, which is essential for the study of consciousness. "As the technology improves, the brain becomes more transparent, less of a black box", writes Achenbach.
Incidentally, the Washington Post writer does not believe that the pineal gland has much to do with identity. "Nice stab, but it turns out that it doesn't seem to have much to do with creating the "I" in our head. Other brain structures are important, such as something called Brodmann area 46, and the anterior cingulate sulcus, and the thalamus, and of course the knurled, dipsy-doodle structure called the cerebral cortex", he says.
But you could argue that the fMRI scan on the quiet Chinese sitters proves just that. The research findings were published after Achenbach wrote his report, but all the same he might not have paid much attention to it. In recent years, several similar studies have all indicated similar things about the pineal gland. Perhaps such studies lead to concerns about the ethical implications of pinpointing which parts of the brain are responsible for which kind of human experiences.
Scientific consciousness research is generally met with a level of counterintuition that is extreme. Any consciousness research that is in any way conclusive will risks becoming a victim of its own success. We're human, after all.
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