Could understanding and fully appreciating fungi and mushrooms be a key to expanding collective human consciousness? Or revitalize neural networks for those with dementia? What about combatting the next pandemic and antibiotic-resistant bacteria?
These are a few important questions explored in the new Netflix documentary “Fantastic Fungi.”
“We are the wisdom of a billion years, we are creation, we are resurrection, condemnation, and regeneration—we…are…mushrooms,” says narrator Brie Larson.
At all times, we’re surrounded by fungi, and yet there’s so much to learn. An intricately connected fungal highway is right under our noses, and inside it, given that we breathe spores with each breath. Although often overlooked and even derided as dangerous, we owe our existence to these pioneering ancient organisms. Somewhere between plant and animal, the fungi essentially terraformed the planet. By creating soil, they paved the way for plants and thus for the oxygen we now breathe.
Secrets of the Mycelium
In the film, pioneering scientist Suzanne Simard, whose research inspired scenes of tree communication in the movie Avatar, appears, positively glowing with hope for our future. Why? She understands how trees talk and nurture one another through the vast fungal highways called mycelium. Once enough people appreciate the secrets of the forests, only then is their hope. Because when we comprehend how amazing and complex it all is, we will know preserving old-growth forests is essential to preserving our own species.
Thanks to the mycelium, dubbed the “Wood Wide Web” after Simard’s research from 1997, the older Mother Trees are caring for their offspring, not competing. It’s beautiful to think about and goes against the concept of cruel survival of the fittest. No, here, life is cooperating, sharing nutrients, and locking away carbon. Today, that’s more critical than ever as the threats of climate change begin to worsen.
Fantastic & Ancient Fungi
While the mycelium allows the Mother Trees to communicate, it also has an ancient connection with us. Some 2.4 billion years ago, mycelium was already present, as found in the fossil record, says mycologist Paul Stamets. It’s the oldest record of a multicellular organism on Earth. Then, some 650 million years ago, fungi and animals branched apart, taking separate evolutionary paths.
“We are more related to fungi than we are to any other kingdom. What this means is we are descendants of mycelium. Mycelium is the Mother of us all,” Stamets says.
Saving Old-Growth Forests as ‘a Matter of National Defense’
Intriguingly, the film also explores the idea that magic mushroom consumption was responsible for rapid brain growth in ancient hominids, the “stoned ape hypothesis.”
If not, there is another theory that fungal pathogens set the stage for the rise of mammals. Since mammals are warm-blooded, they could fight off harmful fungus better than cold-blooded reptiles.
Over the eons, the fungi have mastered the art of defense from their own invading pathogens, bacteria, and viruses. Many of the pathogens can infect humans as well.
Such fungal defenses have demonstrated their worth with the discovery of penicillin in 1927. The discovery of penicillium saved thousands of soldiers’ lives during World War II, possibly deciding the war’s outcome. However, after decades of use, resistant bacteria have evolved.
“Many scientists are trying to come up with the next antibiotic, the next penicillin, but we have barely tapped into the fungal genome, especially the mushroom form of fungi,” Stamets says. “Think of it: our old-growth forests that contain these ancient fungi are deep reservoirs of potential compounds that can fight pandemic viruses. We should save the old-growth forest as a matter of national defense.”
Fungi and Altered States of Consciousness
As noted, the documentary explores the potential for altered states of consciousness and mushrooms. During the hippie movement of the 70s, authority figures stigmatized the use of psychedelics. Unfortunately, this hindered progress in studying mushrooms’ potential medicinal value.
A war on drugs prevented what could have been transformative for society in so many ways.
“The fear of rapid cultural change, as well as the substances that helped fuel it, instigated Nixon’s war on drugs. As his administration distributed irrational, unscientific propaganda about the alleged dangers of psychoactive drugs, mushrooms were yanked out of labs, and research went dormant,” writes Ariana Bindman for SFGate.
Losing the Fear of Death with Fungi?
For psilocybin study participant Tony Head, experiencing an altered state of consciousness gave him a sense of “immense power.” As he faced cancer treatment, the mystical experience had a profound benefit. Most participants report less anxiety and depression and – amazingly, no longer fear death – after one use.
“The most glorious part was that it made me feel more comfortable with living because you’re not afraid of dying,” Head said.
During the altered state of consciousness, they report feeling connected to all of nature and every atom of the universe. Like the mycelium, we are interconnected with all living things. Such a profound realization changes everything and could come just in time.
“From my perspective, this core experience informs all of the religious, ethical, and moral traditions,” says neuroscientist Rolland Griffiths. I mean, that is the core of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If we don’t get some of these priorities straight with respect to how we treat other people, how we treat our environment, we’re gonna cease to exist.”
These are just a few examples Fantastic Fungi explores, turning over a damp leaf to uncover a subject finally coming out into the light again.
“In a world of invention, the answer to our greatest problems may be hiding right under our feet,” says Larson.
See the trailer below from Moving Art: