The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

“Fantastic Fungi, The Magic Beneath Us”: A Documentary Film Review

Authored by Don Targonski, M.S.W.

In a vividly pictorial documentary Paul Stamets, mycologist, takes us on an adventure into an understanding of fungi, how they help trees communicate and how they decompose anything that’s natural based and how they contribute to the regeneration of soil and rebirth of life.  To Stamets nature is intelligent, and it is humans that lack the ability to understand how nature communicates.

According to Eugenia Bons, food journalist, mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi. “They are not like a vegetable and not like an animal but are something in-between. The fungi are its own kingdom.” There are over 1.5 million species of fungi and about 20,000 produce mushrooms.  Michael Pollan, author, journalist, states that fungi are at the end of the life cycle decomposing and restarting dead and dying organisms, moving those nutrients back into the life cycle. They differ from plants in that plants evolve to catch your eye, whereas mushrooms have no such interest. Without fungi there would be a buildup of plant matter that would choke the earth.

Stamets related an experiment with diesel fuel. One pile of fuel was saturated with enzymes, one pile with bacteria and one pile with fungi. The pile with fungi broke down the carbon hydrogen bonds. After 6 weeks this pile was covered with mushrooms. These mushrooms sporulated, releasing billions of spores that attract insects and birds resulting in an oasis of life.

Suzanne Simard, PhD, from the University of British Columbia, described how most of the fungi are underground, composed of long threads that branch in all directions; they are called mycelium. The mycelium form networks, which trees use to communicate with each other. Plants can recognize their own kin. The mother tree and its seedlings message each other. If the seedlings are in need of nutrients, the mother tree will reduce her competitive environment in order for the seedlings to thrive.

About 650 million years ago fungi divided into two branches, one led to fungi and the other to animals. The mycelium remained underground and during the cataclysmic events that eliminated sunlight and caused the animals and plants to die. However, the fungi survived underground. In time other organisms came into existence, eventually leading to homo sapiens. Pollan states mycelium are intelligent: “they seek out food, respond to the environment, defend themselves and solve problems.” They can live forever as long as food is available.

Simard describes mushrooms as the organ of sexual reproduction. They emit spores that are tiny gene carriers that break down the food they land on. Plants inhale carbon dioxide, the biggest greenhouse gas and exhale oxygen. Seventy percent of this carbon is stored below ground and ends up in fungal cell walls, which stabilizes the carbon for thousands of years.

Inspired by Andrew Weil’s “Altered States of Consciousness” Stamets turned his focus to the effects of mushrooms on the brain. In 2 million years the human cortex tripled in size. In the 1970’s Dennis McKenna PhD, ethnopharmacologist, and his brother Terrance McKenna, proposed the stoned ape hypothesis. Psychedelic mushrooms produced altered states of consciousness leading to profound experiences, “opening up the floodgates of information.” Twenty-three primates including humans consumed mushrooms, some of which induced synesthesia, a perception of one sensory modality and another such as seeing music or hearing colors. These experiences are like contact fluid between synapses in the brain that becomes the software that programs the hardware to think and develop language.

Fungi produce all kinds of enzymes that engage in chemical warfare to fight off competition for food from other fungi as well as fight off bacteria and viruses. Chemicals produced by mushrooms are often used as medicine i.e., penicillin, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1927. All the mycelium defended themselves from diseases for millions of years. Research conducted by the defense department’s BioShield program in the 1990’s uncovered novel discoveries such as mycelium being learning membranes. “They are self-learning network-based organisms that share and store knowledge, and can vaccinate themselves against pathogens.” Weil found that mushrooms have molecules that do not exist elsewhere in nature, such as the “lion’s mane mushroom” that stimulates nerves to regrow. In the future this may prove to be a treatment for Alzheimer’s.

Psychedelics were at the cutting edge of research in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As a result of the counter culture movement and government intervention, the research ended in 1970. It was reactivated in 1991. Subjects with incurable cancer were enrolled in a study where they were given psilocybin and were closely monitored during the experience. According to Bill Richards, psychologist at John Hopkins University “people reported less anxiety, less depression, less preoccupation with pain, closer interpersonal relationships and loss of fear of death.” “From a single experience they changed the way they view themselves and other people in the world.”

Bowen postulated his system theory “on the assumption that the human is a product of evolution and that human behavior is significantly regulated by the same natural processes that regulate the behavior of all other living things.” “It assumes “that homo sapiens is far more like other life forms than different from them.” (Kerr). This documentary described how fungi contribute to birth and regeneration of nature’s life cycle. Fungi decompose organisms, and by moving these nutrients back into the soil they regenerate life. They are learning organisms that share and store knowledge. They produce enzymes that engage in chemical warfare to fight off competition for food and fight off bacteria and viruses. They form large networks(mycelium) that allow plants to communicate with each other. These are some of the features in nature that resemble human behavior.

Kerr, M.E. & Bowen, M. Family Evaluation: An approach based on Bowen Theory. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988, p,3.

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