Few psychedelics emerge as ready for consumption as psilocybin mushrooms. Ayahuasca involves the brewing of two very specific plants together in order to have its effects. LSD is typically synthesized in a lab, and even mescaline-containing cacti are usually cooked or dried before consumption. Psilocybin mushrooms, on the other hand, are ready for consumption. All that is required is that you pluck and swallow the mushroom. What happens next depends on many factors. For many, the psilocybin experience is one of realizing the interconnectedness of reality and gaining greater respect for the natural world. Why are these mushrooms just lying around, ready to give us such an experience? Could it be more than just a coincidence of brain chemistry? Could it be that this group of fungi evolved to send us a message?
For millennia, western thinking has been dominated by the idea that we are separate from, and superior to, the rest of nature. Plants and fungi are seen as dumb, mechanical processes that we can plunder for materials and chemicals without considering how we relate to them. Other cultures see other lifeforms as peers. They are viewed as creatures deserving of respect and from whom we might be able to learn something. This perspective has given rise to the concept of certain psychedelic plants as “plant teachers,” given their ability to produce profound insight when consumed.
Intelligence Without a Brain
Why do these naturally occurring substances have such effects? Is it simply the case that if we tried every chemical in nature some would, entirely by chance, produce altered states of consciousness? Or does it make more sense to think of us and the plant and fungal worlds that we inhabit as having coevolved, with them acting on us as much as we act on them? Such a view imbues plants and fungi with the capacity for intelligent behavior, although not the kind of behavior we’re used to.
Our human-centered perspective on the world finds it easy to think of animals as behaving in intelligent ways, given that they act on the world via movement as we do. Plant and fungal movements are far slower and more subtle than our own, making it hard for us to detect. What’s more, their behavior is often chemical, rather than muscular, something far outside our animal conception of what it is to act in the world.
In addition to the subtleties of their behavior, their actions aren’t typically of immediate survival concern for us, unlike the movements of a predator that might try to eat us. As a result, evolution didn’t equip us to perceive the intelligent action of the plant and fungal kingdoms but modern science is finding that intelligent behavior is indeed there. How can an organism be intelligent without a brain? It turns out that the problem-solving engine of intelligence is the life-process itself, the instinct for survival by any means that keeps us existing moment to moment. Coupled with evolution, all organisms find intelligent ways of behaving in their niche. Brains and nervous systems are just one flexible way to act intelligently in the world.
Our Fungal World
When it comes to the world of psychedelic fungi, the idea of the fungus as an intelligent organism that is attempting to send us a message seems plausible. Fungi were the first lifeforms to emerge from the sea and onto land, long before plants and animals. The plants that succeed on land did so by collaborating with the fungi. Today, some 90% of plants are thought to be dependent on symbiotic relationships with fungi. Homo sapiens evolved in a fungal context. It was their world first and they still hold it together, often without us being aware of it.
Fungi do not absorb sunlight in the way that plants do in order to make their own food. Nor do they eat food and digest it inside their bodies as animals do. Fungi secrete substances that digest food in place and then they transfer the nutrients into their bodies. As a result they are the great decomposers of the world, transforming dead plant and animal matter into usable nutrients that can give rise to new life. Fungi exist at the border of life and death. They are masters of the circle of life, rebirth, and renewal.
From our human-centered perspective, fungi seem rather inert and unimpressive. They don’t move much and seem to be uninteresting passive objects rather than intelligent beings. Just because they don’t move, however, doesn’t mean they don’t have behavior. Fungi are master chemists who can produce a vast range of chemicals. They can then act on the world via the effects of these chemicals on different organisms. Some mushrooms contain substances that are lethal to animals. Other fungi contain chemicals that have more subtle effects. The cordyceps fungus is one example. Through its chemical action, it can take over the brains of ants, making them climb as high as possible before shooting a mushroom out of the ant’s head to release spores on the remaining ants below. This is an effective and complex way of propagating one’s genes.
Psilocybin is a chemical made by fungi, presumably in order to have an effect on animals that is beneficial to the evolution of the fungus. However, it is unlikely that we are the primary target of the psilocybin. The vast majority of animals on his planet are insects. Engaging with the behavior of insects, as with the cordyceps fungus, is a far more routine part of fungal life than engaging with humans. Psilocybin may serve to intoxicate insects, resulting in them being less effective at eating the fungus. One psilocybin-producing species of fungus, massospora, drives cicadas into a mating frenzy but also replaces their genitalia with a mass of spores so that the cicadas disperse the spores far and wide. This is another complex method of spore dispersal that shows the astonishing complexity of what fungal chemical action is capable of achieving when interacting with animal nervous systems.
Altering Human Minds
Just because psilocybin has particular effects on insects does not mean that it didn’t also evolve to affect us. Evolution often manages to repurpose one trick to achieve multiple goals, depending on the circumstance. What happens to a human when they consume psilocybin mushrooms? The psilocybin activates specific receptors in the brain’s serotonin system. The serotonin 2A receptor is densely found in brain areas involved in building one’s psychological sense of self. As a result of disrupting this processing, one can undergo an experience of ego dissolution. With the removal of one’s usual evolved preoccupation with being something separate from the rest of the world, the truth that we are all patterns in a single unfolding reality is revealed.
This is the classical, mystical experience and it has been found to lead to greater appreciation for ways of being found in the non-human natural world. Ecosystems are systems of interdependence, collaboration, symbiosis, recycling, and regeneration. With the sense of being a separate self out of the way, a self that seeks to dominate and control in a variety of subtle ways, people may find a deep appreciation for the wisdom of this ecological way of being.
The Ecological Message
From the perspective of the fungal kingdom, a group of organisms concerned with the interconnectedness of ecosystems and balancing the needs of different organisms, this shift in the consciousness of one problematic group of primates is deemed beneficial. When there is a single species on this planet that is obsessed with its felt separation from nature and the resulting domination of nature that follows from this, it would be very much in the evolutionary interest of the fungus, and the wider interconnected ecosystem that it represents, to alter their mental states. This can bring them more in line with ecological principles. Perhaps this evolutionarily beneficial drive on the fungus in part accounts for their producing such a powerful psychedelic compound.
Learning From Fungi
Beyond the messages that psychedelic fungi may be sending us, we can learn a lot from the wisdom of the wider fungal kingdom. Principles of interconnection, symbiotic collaboration, sustainability, recycling, and acceptance of the death-birth cycle are all easy to see in the ways that fungi organize themselves. Fungal solutions are being proposed for environmental problems, from dealing with oil spills to cleaning up nuclear waste. Perhaps by listening to the lessons of psilocybin and learning from the wisdom of the fungal kingdom, the human race might be able to adjust its behavior in order to become more sustainable and harmonious with the rest of the natural world.