In certain dharmic spiritual traditions such as Hinduism, the third eye refers to the ajna, or brow, chakra. The third eye refers to the gate that leads to inner realms and spaces of higher consciousness. In New Age spirituality, the third eye often symbolizes a state of enlightenment or the evocation of mental images having deeply personal spiritual or psychological significance. The third eye is often associated with religious visions, clairvoyance, the ability to observe chakras and auras, precognition, and out-of-body experiences. People who are claimed to have the capacity to utilize their third eyes are sometimes known as seers. In some traditions such as Hinduism, the third eye is said to be located around the middle of the forehead, slightly above the junction of the eyebrows.
In Taoism and many traditional Chinese religious sects such as Chan (called Zen in Japanese), "third eye training" involves focusing attention on the point between the eyebrows with the eyes closed, and while the body is in various qigong postures. The goal of this training is to allow students to tune into the correct "vibration" of the universe and gain a solid foundation on which to reach more advanced meditation levels. Taoism teaches that the third eye, also called the mind's eye, is situated between the two physical eyes, and expands up to the middle of the forehead when opened. Taoism claims that the third eye is one of the main energy centers of the body located at the sixth chakra, forming a part of the main meridian, the line separating left and right hemispheres of the body. In Taoist alchemical traditions, the third eye is the frontal part of the "Upper Dan Tien" (upper cinnabar field) and is given the evocative name "muddy pellet".
According to the Christian teaching of Father Richard Rohr, the concept of the third eye is a metaphor for non-dualistic thinking; the way the mystics see. In Rohr's concept, mystics employ the first eye (sensory input such as sight) and the second eye (the eye of reason, meditation, and reflection), "but they know not to confuse knowledge with depth, or mere correct information with the transformation of consciousness itself. The mystical gaze builds upon the first two eyes—and yet goes further." Rohr refers to this level of awareness as "having the mind of Christ".
According to the neo-gnostic teachings of Samael Aun Weor, the third eye is referenced symbolically and functionally several times in the Book of Revelation 3:7-13, a work which, as a whole, he believes describes Kundalini and its progression upwards through three and a half turns and seven chakras. This interpretation equates the third eye with the sixth of the seven churches of Asia detailed therein, the Church of Philadelphia.
The biological foundation of the mind's eye is not fully understood. Studies using fMRI have shown that the lateral geniculate nucleus and the V1 area of the visual cortex are activated during mental imagery tasks. Ratey writes:
The visual pathway is not a one-way street. Higher areas of the brain can also send visual input back to neurons in lower areas of the visual cortex. [...] As humans, we have the ability to see with the mind's eye – to have a perceptual experience in the absence of visual input. For example, PET scans have shown that when subjects, seated in a room, imagine they are at their front door starting to walk either to the left or right, activation begins in the visual association cortex, the parietal cortex, and the prefrontal cortex - all higher cognitive processing centers of the brain.
The rudiments of a biological basis for the mind's eye is found in the deeper portions of the brain below the neocortex, or where the center of perception exists. The thalamus has been found to be discrete to other components in that it processes all forms of perceptional data relayed from both lower and higher components of the brain. Damage to this component can produce permanent perceptual damage, however when damage is inflicted upon the cerebral cortex, the brain adapts to neuroplasticity to amend any occlusions for perception. It can be thought that the neocortex is a sophisticated memory storage warehouse in which data received as an input from sensory systems are compartmentalized via the cerebral cortex. This would essentially allow for shapes to be identified, although given the lack of filtering input produced internally, one may as a consequence, hallucinate - essentially seeing something that isn't received as an input externally but rather internal (i.e. an error in the filtering of segmented sensory data from the cerebral cortex may result in one seeing, feeling, hearing or experiencing something that is inconsistent with reality).
Not all people have the same internal perceptual ability. For many, when the eyes are closed, the perception of darkness prevails. However, some people are able to perceive colorful, dynamic imagery. The use of hallucinogenic drugs increases the subject's ability to consciously access visual (and auditory, and other sense) percepts. The Mental Imagery article goes into more detail.
Furthermore, the pineal gland is a hypothetical candidate for producing a mind's eye; Rick Strassman and others have postulated that during near-death experiences (NDEs) and dreaming, the gland might secrete a hallucinogenic chemical N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) to produce internal visuals when external sensory data is occluded. However, this hypothesis has yet to be fully supported with neurochemical evidence and plausible mechanism for DMT production.
In Theosophy it is related to the pineal gland. According to this belief, humans had in far ancient times an actual third eye in the back of the head with a physical and spiritual function. Over time, as humans evolved, this eye atrophied and sunk into what today is known as the pineal gland. Dr. Rick Strassman has hypothesized that the pineal gland, which maintains light sensitivity, is responsible for the production and release of DMT (dimethyltryptamine), an entheogen which he believes possibly could be excreted in large quantities at the moments of birth and death.
Adherents of theosophist H.P. Blavatsky have suggested that the third eye is in fact the partially dormant pineal gland, which resides between the two hemispheres of the brain. Reptiles and amphibians sense light via a third parietal eye—a structure associated with the pineal gland—which serves to regulate their circadian rhythms, and for navigation, as it can sense the polarization of light. C.W. Leadbeater claimed that by extending an "etheric tube" from the third eye, it is possible to develop microscopic and telescopic vision. It has been asserted by Stephen Phillips that the third eye's microscopic vision is capable of observing objects as small as quarks.
The use of the phrase mind's eye does not imply that there is a single or unitary place in the mind or brain where visual consciousness occurs. Philosophers such as Daniel Dennett have critiqued this view. However, others, such as Johnjoe McFadden of the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom and the New Zealand-based neurobiologist Susan Pockett, propose that the brain's electromagnetic field is consciousness itself, thus causing the perception of a unitary location.
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