My Fungi are Smarter than Your Honor Student

I’m going to continue my tradition of reviewing books several months — or in this case, years — after they’ve actually been published.  Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, by mycologist Paul Stamets, was published waaaaay back in 2005, before I had kids.  If there was some sort of uproar when this book was published, I might have missed it because I was busy leading the devil-may-care lifestyle of the child-free: going to movies, meeting up with friends, sometimes even staying out past 8pm.

Now that I’m more domestic, I get to spend my evenings the way I’ve wanted to all along — reading books about obscure plants!

And let me tell you, if your attitude toward fungi is anything like mine was (disdainful, ambivalent at best) then you need to read Mycelium Running.

First, a word about terminology.  Mycelium refers to networks of fungus cells that inhabit soil or any other organic host — rotting logs, for example.  The fungi strands in this network are threadlike, microscopic, often only one cell wide.  Mushrooms, then, are actually the fruiting bodies of these mycelium. 

That’s not the cool part, though.

What blew my mind are some of Stamets’ pronouncements about this living network of mycelium: that it is a form of intelligence not unlike the human brain, that it can form mats which cover hundreds of continuous acres, that it can sense movement and distress in its ecosytem and work to repair damage, that it acts as “a collective fungal consciousness.”

 OMG, right?  Shoulda called the book Mycelium Rocking.

Anyway, I can’t paraphrase Stamets adequately, so let me just offer up a few of his mind-blowing quotes:

“I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature.”

“I believe that the mycelium operates at a level of complexity that exceeds the computational powers of our most advanced supercomputers.”

“I calculate that every step I take impacts more than 300 miles of mycelium.”

He goes on to suggest that the architecture of a mycelium network is merely an archetype — that it shares patterns with the information systems of the internet, with the neural networks of the human brain, even with the theoretical “dark matter” of the universe.

Left, a computer model depicting dark matter. Right, an electron micrograph of fungal mycelium

A visual representation of the Internet

And that’s all just chapter one!

Subsequent chapters are devoted to mycelium’s astonishing potential for healing our environment.  Here is just a sample of what mycelium may be able to do:

  • clean up degraded watersheds by filtering pathogens, silt, and toxins from run-off
  • speed the return of nutrients to the soil in managed forests (despite claims to the contrary, managed monocultures of trees are not at all a “renewable resource”)
  • reduce risk of forest fires by retaining moisture in the forest floor
  • help reduce or prevent erosion
  • absorb radiation and heavy metals at toxic waste sites
  • prevent and heal viral diseases — including HIV —  in humans

Okay, so fungi can’t create world peace, and it’s not winning any beauty contests, but that list is pretty damn impressive.

I think that Paul Stamets has done for fungi what Doug Tallamy did for insects in Bringing Nature Home — taken a life form that many people ignored or even reviled, and showed us what idiots we’ve been to take it for granted.  Stamets, like Tallamy, has shed miraculous light upon the natural world.

I’m not overstating it when I say the book will change the way you view the world.

(Click here to see Paul Stamets’ TED Talk called Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.)

22 thoughts on “My Fungi are Smarter than Your Honor Student

  1. That is fascinating. I first encountered this bit of knowledge while watching the 90’s show Northern Exposure. There was an episode in the last season that was called “The Great Mushroom” in which they talked about this very thing. Of course, at the time I thought they were just being “quirky” and I didn’t give it much thought or consider that it could actually be true.

    In a possibly related side note, I recently learned that Quaking Aspens have what I imagine to be a similar connectedness as the mycelium. This video explains it better than I can (you can fast forward to the 1:40 mark).

    The world continues to be a place of mystery and magic. I love this stuff.

  2. Whoa, that’s amazing. I’ve been rather obsessed with compost tea and other supposed fungi-stimulating activities, but to be honest, I know almost nothing about what they do.

    Can’t wait to read this. Great review!

    • The best ones, truth be told, are oyster mushrooms. Not only do the mycellae capture and digest innumerable nematodes, but you get edible fruiting bodies to go with them. (My wife and I discovered about seven years ago that oyster mushrooms tend to live in aged honey mesquite trees, and they produce fruiting bodies in the spring. Now, I keep an eye open for people trimming back sick or dead honey mesquites: the wood is exemplary for barbecues and smokers, and if you make sure the logs stay relatively moist by North Texas standards, you can stack up logs and harvest a ridiculous number of oyster mushrooms during the main growing season.)

      • I wish I had the knowledge and confidence to harvest wild mushrooms. I am pretty sure I would poison myself pretty quickly if I attempted it. Maybe I need to study the mushroom glossary in Stamets’ book a bit….even then, though, I think I’d be paranoid.

  3. Are you making “My Fungi are Smarter than Your Honor Student” bumper stickers yet?

    This book sounds amazing. I’m really looking forward to reading it!

  4. Mary, I am the Jack of the last comment. My garden blog is not the one listed on that note. Since I have a couple different blogs that one just happened to come up with that last note I sent. My garden blog which you might enjoy is Lots of photos with Lake Michigan often in the background.

    • Gorgeous photos, Jack! I love Michigan! Both my parents were from MI and I have many happy memories of waterskiing in Lake Huron as a kid. Also swimming in Lake Superior in high summer and freezing my tail off. Thanks for visiting my site!

  5. Here’s hoping that neither mushrooms nor quaking aspens become self-aware. You and another of my favorite bloggers, are talking mushrooms at the same time–maybe he can inspire you to forage for wild edibles! I’ve often wondered at the strange dearth of mushrooms and the like in my own woods, although I did write about the very cool Orange Peel Fungus that showed itself last fall–pretty and so vivid. I like your blog! Thanks, Caleone

      • Thank you for that! Right after signing off on the now-miserably-failed Mitigation Plan for my property, one of the city inspectors commented that I ‘needed to eradicate the invasive weeds near the Sensitive Area–particularly the thistles.’ Turned out to be how I feel about being forced to pay an idiot “Mitigation Planner,” buy a few hundred plants, and put a cash survival bond up–and then need to replace nearly all the original plants. Gotta have a sense of humor about that!

  6. are you sure it cant bring world peace? I tried some of these fungi, with psilocybin in them. And it can give a deeper insight into the world, and connect a person so deeply to earth and to the universe. Its like a psiritual journey of deep meditation, along with a loss of sense of self/ego. In the aftermath, you feel more uplifted, you feel awakened, you feel positive, inspired, awestruck, confused. It has the power to remove depressions, and it has the power to give empathy to someone with a large ego. And im not pulling all this out from a hat btw. There are numerous studies, showing how psychedelic mushrooms literally makes the brain grow branches of neurons, effectively connecting all the brain in a much better way. Its almost like a key that unlocks our full potential. I would even dare say, it takes a sheep (a sleeping human) And wakes them up to their full potential. It literally connected me to humanity, and to earth, and to all things in this universe. And maybe i sound crazy, but i urge you to do your own research, because i tried this first, and then through studying it, i found so many things that just confirmed the experience I had.

    the subtle little things that I would otherwise have missed, the little clues that people give off, their energies, nature, i just feel connected in a much deeper way, someimtes its even as if im connected to things in the future, as ive been able to sense and thus be more comfortable with the world, and with things. Again im sorry if this seems obscure to you, but there are experiences and things in this world, that powers that be wouldnt want you to know of, and wouldnt want you to believe are real, but they are.

    Fungi has pushed cultures, and our human species into turbo mode in terms of evolution; again im talking about the psychdelic edible mushrooms. The first advanced civilizations ate these mushrooms, and was able to communicate and connect to the universe; and thus culture and religion sprang from it.

    There are so many other things I could say, but i can only attest, that all the things that are said about psychedelic mushrooms, are true.

    Cures depression,
    Awakens the individual/Turns on the brain
    connects us to our brothers and sisters, on a deeper level
    connects us to the earth, plants and the universe as a whole (We are all one)
    Grows empathy
    Grows grattitude
    people coming out of it are able to create complex art.

    So when you say it cant create world peace, I just disagree with you, but as long as it is illegal and these things are repressed information, it obviously wont bring us closer to world peace.


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