Perhaps the most popular mystery of fungi is how they manage to alter our consciousness. While books like Michael Pollan’s 2018 best seller How to Change Your Mind explore the human response to psychedelics, Sheldrake, ever interested in what he calls the “fungal point of view,” asks what’s in it for the mushrooms. No one yet knows why psychedelic mushrooms synthesize psilocybin, the compound responsible for our altered states. Yet some two hundred species of mushrooms found all over the world do it.
Scientists have proposed several theories about fungal motivations, one of which is inspired by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a fungus whose spores infiltrate the bodies of ants and quickly commandeer their nervous systems. Once inoculated with cordyceps, the ants abandon their usual routines and march straight up trees, where they perform a “death grip,” biting down hard on the underside of a leaf to anchor themselves. Mycelium sprouts from the ants’ feet and “stitches them to the plant’s surface,” Sheldrake writes. Then, a cordyceps mushroom erupts out of each ant’s head, killing the ant. The mushroom disgorges its spores, which rain down on the ants scurrying beneath and infect them, spreading the cycle of zombification and reproducing the cordyceps. For part of its life cycle, then, the cordyceps could be said to wear an ant’s body, using it to act through.
Channeling the work of the psychedelic plant-theorist Terrence McKenna, a family friend of Sheldrake’s, the author asks, “Do psilocybin fungi ‘wear our minds,’” as Ophiocordyceps wears ant bodies? After all, human behavior notably changes during and after consuming magic mushrooms—many report mystical experiences that impart a sense of awe and interconnection, a new understanding about the nature of reality, and a lessening of a clearly defined sense of self. Thousands of years of psilocybin mushroom use have left distinct traces in diverse human cultures, from chants to religious beliefs and devotional art.
The gene cluster responsible for psilocybin seems to have evolved separately in fungi several times, and to have jumped, via gene transfer, between species. According to Sheldrake, that alone suggests it must have provided “a significant advantage to any fungi who expressed it.” But what’s useful to fungi in the behavior of humans and other animals while under the influence of psilocybin? In McKenna’s view, fungi borrow the human body in an attempt, perhaps—as Sheldrake puts it—to “deflect our destructive habits as a species,” influencing a symbiotic partnership with possibilities “richer and even more baroque” than could be achieved by either humans or fungi alone.
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