Are Mushrooms Intelligent?

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Earthy forest floor dwellers and archetypal components of our morning fry-ups, mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi. Not animals, nor plants, the fungal kingdom exists in a league of its own. Although mushrooms might appear to be fairly inconsequential to everyday life, science is showing that there is much more to these strange, rubber-fleshed creatures than meets the naked eye.

“The emerging field of psychedelic research is developing the most promising solutions to the mental health epidemic in the history of modern medicine.”

A budding upsurge of findings in the field of mycology – the study of fungi – is revealing that they have an indispensable place in our soil, sustainable technologies and the psychotherapist’s toolbox. Many of the phenomenal qualities of fungi defy human understanding, as we discover that fungi operate as individuals that learn, communicate and make decisions. As our conception of these multidimensional beings unfolds, fungi become ever more vital to the present and future of life on our planet.

Who are Fungi?

Mushrooms are the fleshy, spore-spreading organs of a fungus. As apples to a tree, mushrooms produce spores, like seeds, so that the fungus can disperse itself. Although they are the clearest identifying marker of fungi, epitomized in human imagination by the red and white toadstool, fungal life largely occurs underground and most species do not produce mushrooms at all.

Fungi are formed of many cells known as hyphae. These tubular, branch-like structures extend through the soil from their tips, fusing and tangling to create a freeform lattice known as mycelium. Hyphae grow three-dimensionally in soil, feeding on roots, wood and dead animal matter. Water and nutrients traverse ecosystems via mycelial networks and mushrooms are the product of the enmeshing of these hyphal strands1.

Hyphal Strands in a Mycelium Network - Psychedelics - Magic Mushrooms - GCI Content Hub - Global Cannabis Intelligence
Hyphal Strands in a Mycelium Network

Fungi are the most pervasive life form on Earth. Their spores are in the air we breathe, the bread we bake and the antibiotics we prescribe. Mycelial networks are the threads which make up the fabric which holds together the Earth’s soil. Without this dense mesh of fungi, soil would quickly be washed away by rain. Fungal mycelia are the largest lifeform on Earth, with huge structures extending underground. Just one teaspoon of soil can contain up to 10km of fungal hyphae2.

Wood-Wide Web

It was fungi that piggybacked plant life out of the water and onto dry land some 600 million years ago. By forging a relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, plants were able to weather the dry and inhospitable conditions of the earth3. Mycelial networks of mycorrhizal fungi colonise the root system of the plant, acting as accessory root extensions, allowing plants to maximise their water and nutrients absorption capability. In return, fungi benefit from carbohydrates generated by photosynthesis4.

Fungi’s ability to form symbiotic relationships is crucial to our ecosystem as we know it; presently, 90 percent of all plant species depend on fungi to survive. Fungi’s enmeshment with plants is evidence that collaboration and dependency between living beings have engendered one of the most defining evolutionary developments in the history of life5.

“Fungi are thriving, deep-rooted proof of the power of collaborative relationships in nature.”

Networks of mycelium and roots extend underground to form a dynamic system, connecting plants together and allowing them to communicate and exchange water and nutrients between one another. This complex mycelial network has been termed ‘the wood-wide web’6 due to its internet-like ability to enhance the connectivity (and therefore productivity) of the entire ecosystem. This web is not static but adaptable and ever-evolving – connections are constantly being created, severed and recreated. This lack of behavioural predictability indicates that fungi have an ability to self-organise in response to external and internal stimuli7.

Fungi Mycelial Networks - Psychedelics - GCI Content Hub - Global Cannabis Intelligence
Fungi Mycelial Networks

The growth rate and direction of mycelial networks is reactive to the fungi’s environment, meaning they operate as individuals and make decisions. Fungal colonies assume unique, irreproducible geometrical shapes as a result of the timing and positions of their branch emergence. Hyphae can grow around obstacles and alter their growth rate, becoming narrower and branching less frequently in response to confinement8. The nature of mycelial networks as simultaneously branching hyphal strands means that fungi have the ability to cross two doorways at once and alter the development of the entire network accordingly.

This capacity to problem-solve by comparing numerous courses of action is perceived as a distinctly human quality. Mycelium learn and make decisions without a central nervous system to coordinate their course of action. Experiments showcasing this ability have found that – by finding the shortest path between two points in a labyrinth – slime moulds can quickly recreate the complex transport systems of major cities, such as Tokyo’s railway network9.

Humans tend to understand sophisticated behaviours such as ‘learning,’ ‘communicating,’ and ‘decision-making’ as parameters of intelligence. What does it mean that a creature can communicate without language? And make decisions without a brain? The capabilities of fungi confound widely-held assumptions about the superiority of humans and mammals.

What does it mean to be intelligent? Fungi remind us that it is not exclusive to humans; rather, humans have a place on a spectrum of intelligence which spans the natural world, meaning there are forms of intellect that our cognition may not perceive or understand. Fungi’s problem-solving abilities challenge our anthropocentric hierarchy and frameworks for measuring intelligence. Can we ever understand these creatures?

Mushrooms as Portals to Enlightenment

Some fungi are entheogens, meaning they elicit vivid hallucinations and profound, lasting feelings of spiritual wellbeing, oneness, connectivity and the divine within oneself. The most well-known is psilocybin, the active ingredient in psilocybe semilanceata, commonly known as the liberty cap, or ‘magic mushrooms’. There is no known evolutionary explanation for the hallucinogenic properties of fungi because it is unclear what benefit they derive from their ability to induce these transformative experiences. We have consumed hallucinogenic mushrooms, or ‘flesh of the gods’, in cultural and religious contexts for as long as we have been human10.

Within a relatively short period of time, between fifty and seventy thousand years ago, mankind developed the earliest known art, religion and complex social organisation systems. Due to a lack of evidence, the source of human art and spirituality is likely to remain one of mankind’s greatest mysteries. However, some theorise that human consumption of entheogenic fungi lies at the root of human cultural, biological and spiritual evolution11. This is the ‘stoned ape’ hypothesis, which proposes that consumption of psilocybin mushrooms sparked the earliest iteration of self-reflection and spirituality in Palaeolithic humans12.

“Hallucinogenic mushrooms have the potential to remedy many of humanity’s most pressing psychological and environmental afflictions.”

Liberty Cap Mushroom - Psychedelics - GCI Content Hub - Global Cannabis Intelligence
Liberty Cap Mushroom

An advocate of this theory, the late ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna viewed psilocybin as a chemical messenger that fungi use to manipulate the world by communicating wisdom. By delivering information via psychedelic experiences, fungi influence human consciousness in an attempt to deflect the destructive habits of our species. In this way, entheogenic mushrooms can be viewed as teachers imparting wisdom to humankind in a symbiotic partnership which fungi engage in to deter environmentally destructive behaviours and preserve the living conditions of life on Earth13.

Psychedelics as Breakthrough Therapies

However indulgent McKenna’s theory may seem, modern science is discovering that hallucinogenic mushrooms have the potential to remedy many of humanity’s most pressing psychological and environmental afflictions. Contemporary research confirms what traditional cultures using mushrooms as medicinal portals to mysticism have known for centuries.

Psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy has the therapeutic potential to treat a wide variety of conditions, including depression, anxiety, anorexia and substance use disorders. In 2019, the US Food and Drugs Administration designated psilocybin a ‘breakthrough therapy’ for treatment-resistant depression14.

A single dose of psilocybin has been shown to increase quality of life, openness to new experiences, psychological wellbeing and life satisfaction. Studies have effectively used psilocybin to treat existential distress in individuals facing life-threatening cancer15. Indeed, the emerging field of psychedelic research is developing the most promising solutions to the mental health epidemic in the history of modern medicine.

Environmental Entrepreneurs

Having survived a handful of mass extinction events on Earth, fungi are incredibly resilient and adaptable to living conditions which most life forms would find inhospitable. Fungi have a defining ability to survive – and often flourish – in periods of cataclysmic global transformation. After Hiroshima (Japan) was obliterated by an atomic bomb, masutake mushrooms were reportedly the first beings to rise from the rubble16.

Psychedelic mushrooms induce feelings of unity and interconnectedness with all living beings in a way that highlights the importance of environmental conservation. In a similar vein, an expanding field of biotechnology is pioneering a hoard of ecological solutions to climate change using fungi.

Intelligent Fungi - Psychedelics - GCI Content Hub - Global Cannabis Intelligence

Fungi are powerful decomposers with a voracious appetite for human waste: without decomposing fungi, the world would soon be buried under mounting piles of decaying matter. Fungi’s stealthy ability to digest pollutants creates opportunities to grow food from waste and restore contaminated ecosystems. By gradually phasing out alternative food sources, mycologists have trained Pleurotus mycelia (producers of oyster mushrooms) to digest one of the most commonly littered items in the world: used cigarette butts17.

A UN-backed report found that fungi can degrade polyurethane (a widely used plastic) in a matter of weeks18. The emerging field of ‘mycoremediation’ is enlisting fungi in environmental clean-up operations to break down toxins including pesticides, TNT and RDX explosives and the neurotoxin DMMP19. Fungi is also being used to purify polluted water. ‘Mycofiltration’ systems, pioneered by Paul Stamets, utilise the dense mesh of mycelium to absorb heavy metals and infectious diseases such as E Coli from the water.

Just as fungi can break down pollutants, they can be utilised to build things. ‘Mycofabrication’ is the construction of greener alternatives to plastics, leather and construction materials using fungi. Materials grown from mycelium are lightweight, water-resistant, fire retardant and compostable. The biotech firm Ecovative’s mycelium-engineered construction materials resist bending forces better than concrete and compression better than wood framing.

Mycelium leather substitutes can replace factory farming in the textile industry by growing leather more efficiently from materials that would otherwise be disposed of20. Pioneering companies like Mylo are emerging in the ‘mushroom leather’ movement to create high quality bio-based leather alternatives that are less harmful to the environment than traditional leather. Fungi can be used to build packaging, furniture, surfboards, slippers and more – the possibilities seem as infinite as the mind is willing to travel.

There is a burgeoning wealth of mycological knowledge and research which this article cannot claim to cover. Instead, these words are a proverbial toe dipped into the vast pool of fungal insight. At times, awe and wonder seem to be appropriate responses to these fascinating creatures, from which we have much to learn. Whether human understanding can ever truly fathom the existence and abilities of fungi is an open question. Nevertheless, fungi are thriving, deep-rooted proof of the power of collaborative relationships in nature.

In their defiant challenge of our perception of what is possible, fungi become the existential and biotechnological fodder for creative solutions to the spiritual and environmental conundrums which shape our world.

The question is: just how far are we willing to explore the expansive lacuna of opportunities presented by fungi to reimagine a better existence?

1 Sheldrake, M. (2020). Entangled life: how fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures. S.L.: The Bodley Head Ltd, pp. 6-8.

2 Ritz, K. and Young, I.M. (2004). Interactions between soil structure and fungi. Mycologist, [online] 18(2), pp.52–59. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269915X04002010 [Accessed 14 Mar. 2022].

3 Lutzoni, F. et al (2018). Contemporaneous radiations of fungi and plants linked to symbiosis. Nature Communications, [online] 9(1), p.5451. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-07849-9 [Accessed 14 Mar. 2022].

4 Ibid (1), p. 139.

5 Beerling, D. (2019). Making Eden: how plants transformed a barren planet, pp 126-127. Oxford University Press.

6 Ibid (1) p.165.

7 Money, NP (2021) ‘The fungal mind: on evidence for mushroom intelligence,’ Psyche. Available at: https://psyche.co/ideas/the-fungal-mind-on-the-evidence-for-mushroom-intelligence?utm_source=Psyche+Magazine&utm_campaign=b93688f1be-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2021_12_22_01_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_76a303a90a-b93688f1be-71982316 (Accessed 25 February 2022).

8 Ibid (5).

9 Ibid (1), p. 17.

10 Furst, P.T. (1990). Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens. [online] Google Books. Waveland Press. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Flesh_of_the_Gods.html?id=WsolAQAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022].

11 Hancock, G. (2006). Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind. [online] Google Books. Doubleday Canada, Limited, pp.6-10. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Supernatural.html?id=KNnUZ2pXUrAC&source=kp_book_description&redir_esc=y [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022].

12 Ibid (1), p. 113.

13 McKenna, T., McKenna, D. (1976). Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide (Berkley, CA), p. 8.

14 Popular Science. (n.d.). The FDA is fast-tracking a second psilocybin drug to treat depression. [online] Available at: https://www.popsci.com/story/health/psilocybin-magic-mushroom-fda-breakthrough-depression/.

15 Ross, S. et al (2021). Acute and Sustained Reductions in Loss of Meaning and Suicidal Ideation Following Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy for Psychiatric and Existential Distress in Life-Threatening Cancer. ACS Pharmacology & Translational Science.; https://contenthub.gcintelligence.com/psilocybin-assisted-psychotherapy-reduces-loss-of-meaning-and-suicidal-ideation-in-cancer-patients/

16 Tsing, A.L, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 21.

17 www.youtube.com (2014). Radical Mycology: Training a Mushroom to Remediate Cigarette Filters. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCAX9P50SNU.

18 https://stateoftheworldsfungi.org/2018/reports/SOTWFungi_2018_Full_Report.pdf

19 McCoy P. (2016). Radical Mycology: A Treatise on Working and Seeing with Fungi (Portland, OR, Chthaeus Press), Ch. 10.

20 Ibid (1) p. 219.

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