I’m just back from two weeks of restful vacation in Croatia with my family. On holiday I try to make a point of reading great books I’ve never got round to reading, and this time, one of my choices was Jack Kerouac’s roman à clef On the Road, the fictionalized account of his freewheeling days traversing America with his Beat buddies.
It was a book I’d always meant to read, particularly as my first book editor was Joyce Johnson. As a 21 year old, Joyce (then Glassman) was Kerouac’s girlfriend and happened to be with him the night of the publication of this now legendary book, which transformed him into a celebrity virtually overnight and firmly planted the Beats into the America psychic landscape.
I’d been one of her young authors publishing my second book when she published her own version of that period, Minor Characters, which told the story of those days from point of view of the Beat’s girlfriends, who were, as she puts it, the people on the bus who were there to fill up the seats.
Although I’d admired the extraordinary skill of her workmanship, the central concerns of the Beats hadn’t really resonated with me, a child of the late Sixties – until I read On the Road and finally understood what it was these young people had been looking for.
The overwhelming quest for transcendence through any means to hand – drugs, drink, girls, the road – got me thinking about our human need for the beatific and whether it is in fact biological.
The human antenna
British researcher Serena Roney-Dougal has gathered together some of the most compelling research into the biological means by we occasionally tune into the boundless.
According to Roney-Dougal, it all has to do with our pineal gland. This gland is a cone-shaped pea that sits on the roof of the third ventricle of the brain, directly behind the root of the nose, floating in a small lake of cerebrospinal fluid. Because it lies in the centre of the brain, neurosurgeons and radiologists have found it a useful landmark for brain surgery.
René Descartes is often quoted as claiming that the pineal gland is the seat of the soul — a unique meeting point between body and soul. After Descartes, however, the gland was consigned to the neurological dustbin, regarded by the scientific community as an evolutionary leftover, the appendix of the brain.
Then, in the 1950s, Julius Axelrod, an American pharmacologist, neuroscientist and eventual Nobel prizewinner, went on to discover the importance of this gland as our body’s biological clock. Although its full function is still poorly understood, in some scientific quarters, it is thought that, rather than being simply another endocrine gland, the pineal may be the ultimate master switch in the brain, even controlling the pituitary.
In all higher vertebrates, including humans, the pineal gland secretes melatonin, produced from serotonin and tryptamine. Melatonin acts as a kind of master clock, regulating our sleep/wake cycle and retarding the ageing process. The late Bruno Tarquini, head of Internal Medicine at the University of Florence, fascinated by the prospect that human beings are connected to earth’s and other planetary rhythms, discovered something extraordinary – that melatonin is being produced not only from the sun’s light but also its geomagnetic activity.
According to recent neurochemical research, the pineal gland also produces the ‘neuromodulator’ chemicals—–called beta-carbolines. Beta-carbolines are both monoamine-oxidase (MAO) inhibitors and serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which means that they prevent the breakdown of serotonin by inhibiting its uptake into the brain’s synapses, akin to the action of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac.
Some evidence also suggests that the pineal can also manufacture a hallucinogenic substance called 5-methoxydimethyltryptamine (5-methoxy-DMT) from melatonin. What might be the result is a pooling of these amines into the synapses of the brain, causing reactions that are similar to drug-induced hallucinations.
The current view is that neuromodulators need 5-methoxy-DMT and DMT in order to work and that, by blocking MAO, the pineal gland regulates and increases the concentration of serotonin. This regulatory function of blocking one chemical and promoting another is thought to be the catalyst for dreaming.
Several facts suggest that the production of serotonin and melatonin may be centrally involved in psychic phenomena. First, many hallucinogenic substances are chemical sisters to those made by the pineal gland. Yage, or ayahausca, a ceremonial drink made by some Amazon tribes to produce psychic effects for healing, clairvoyance and precognition, is produced from native vines (Banisteriopsis caapi) that are chemically nearly equivalent to the 5-methoxy-DMT in humans.
Roney-Dougal has postulated that, when the pineal gland is stimulated from geomagnetic activity, caused by solar flares or other solar geomagnetic activity, it produces chemicals that are similar to these plant hallucinogens, which help to alter consciousness and allow us to ‘enter The Field’.
This accords with other literature on melatonin and serotonin, altered levels of which have also been associated with psychosis and psychedelic drugs. Furthermore, if these chemicals are responsible for dreaming, it is also known that psychic experiences most readily occur in dream-like states.
So, how do geomagnetism and the earth’s energies affect these brain chemicals? Researchers have found that electromagnetic and geomagnetic fields strongly affect the production and activity of the enzyme hydroxyindole-O-methyltransferase (HIOMT). It is this enzyme that is centrally involved in the production of melatonin and possibly 5-methoxy-DMT.
A number of studies have shown that changing the magnetic field can produce changes in this enzyme’s activity. Studies in animals have also shown that any strong change in the ambient magnetic field—whether increased or decreased—will inhibit production of HIOMT.
Other research shows that serotonin N-acetyltransferase, the enzyme involved in the production of melatonin, is strongly affected by electromagnetic fields.
If all this is the case, says Roney-Dougal, any strong change in the earth’s ambient magnetic field would produce a rush of natural hallucinogens in our bodies, enabling us to be more psychically receptive.
It’s interesting to ponder whether Jack Kerouac’s greatest moments of insight weren’t caused by marijuana, transcendent sex, hangovers, or days of driving, but perhaps the utterly capricious activity of the sun.