Most of the languages of the West have no word for people who are thought pioneers. Some of these individuals are also scientists in some discipline and defined that way, but many are without portfolio — no certifications or sheepskins to confer authority for their out-of-school pronouncements.
We all know people like this. Derrick Jensen, Paul Stamets, Fritjof Capra, Joanna Macy, Terence McKenna, Noam Chomsky. Sometimes their ramblings are profound and sometimes just flights of fancy. Stamets’ flights of fancy back in the 1990s led many to think that mushrooms could neutralize radioactive waste, which is of course impossible. But Stamets, after McKenna, put forward some thoughts about mycelial intelligence or the evolutionary morphology of the human brain that have lasting value.
They theorized that a meeting of mind and mushroom a few hundred thousand years ago led to the Sapiens Sapiens line of homo. Recently a paper by Mark Mattson in Frontiers in Neuroscience sheds more light on that subject by observing that most, if not all, unique features of the human brain are the result of superior pattern processing. The neural processing pattern Mattson describes is based in a mycelia-like human neural network.
Humans and fungi are not evolutionary strangers. We were once the same organism, hundreds of millions of years ago. At some point we parted company, with our line going for discrete, albeit tribal, individualization with internal respiratory and digestive organs and a partnership with bacterial intestinal flora, and the other line continuing to externalize all those functions while establishing deep symbiosis with nearly all other forms of life, mammals included. Fungi’s relationship with bacteria is less cordial than ours.
Some five to eight million years ago, the human brain began to enlarge. That corresponded with an upright posture that gave us the capacities to see, hear and smell farther, move more rapidly and forage longer distances. Other mammals developed similar pattern processings to ours — hippocampus-based cognitive maps of food sources, potential predators and navigation landmarks; ability to distinguish individuals of the same species and their emotional state; and use of sounds and visual gestures to communicate.
Uniquely, our line of mammals evolved a larger cerebral cortex that permitted the “development of tools, processes and protocols for solving problems and saving time” — including all aspects of agriculture, transportation, science, commerce, defense/security, and music; spoken and written languages; rapid decision-making based upon intricate reasoning; mental time travel to compare future scenarios; and “magical thinking/fantasy, cognitive process that involve beliefs in entities and processes that defy accepted laws of causality including telepathy, spirits, and gods.” (Mattson)
Magical explanations were produced for phenomena that could not be understood. As science gradually came to provide better explanations, magical thinking gradually receded. This is not to say it disappeared. We can see magical thinking in the denial mechanism for human mortality (life after death); limits to growth (peak everything); climate change, crooked Hillary and Russian collusion in the 2016 US election. We all have that gene, and it is alive and well.
Mattson does not explore whether ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms was a precipitating factor in the evolutionary jump in our patterning capacity and the corresponding enlargement of our cerebral cortex. He merely observes that Homo sapiens is the only hominid to survive from an original pool of from 8 to 27 species and suggests that our competitive advantage was not physical prowess but superior pattern processing. That ability being described — derived from greater efficiencies of synapsed electrical streamlining leading to better neural networking — is a mycelial pattern. (Parenthetically it has been argued that it was our capacity for ruthless aggression, not more benign mutations, that killed off all competing lines — see Quest for Fire.)
The same efficiency improvements have been described for the redesign of the Tokyo commuter system, wherein researchers scattered oat flakes in a pattern identical to Tokyo’s rail stations and a slime mold, Physarum polycephalum, iteratively selected the optimal pathways between stations. The scientists added areas of bright light (which slime mold tends to avoid) to correspond to mountains or other geologic features that the trains would have to steer around. The mold reinforced routes that were working, eliminated redundant channels, and constantly adapted and adjusted for maximum efficiency — the same as our cerebral cortex does to accelerate and deepen our pattern processing.
Blogsmith Rob Mielcarski examined Mattson’s paper in greater detail and was quick to note a comparison with Brower and Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory. As previously described in this blog's review of their book, Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs and the Origin of the Human Mind, Brower and Varki argued that humans are hard wired to ignore unpleasant thoughts, such as their own mortality. Mielcarski observed:
- After 8 million years of slowly improving brain power in many hominids species, there was a dramatic jump about 100,000 years ago in one of the species that enabled language and enhanced tools making, and that species used its unique skills to outcompete all the others. That species also simultaneously began to believe in life after death which was later elaborated into religions, something no other species does. Using Mattson’s reasoning, brain power should have simultaneously improved for all hominids with no unusual discontinuity.
- Mattson is mistaken about the adaptive value of religion. He thinks that the magical thinking associated with religion has some adaptive value. I think the evidence is clear that humans apply magical thinking to many aspects of their lives, including religion. The adaptive value of religions is not magical thinking, rather it is that religions serve to define, unite, govern, motivate, and entertain tribes, and (especially in times of scarcity) define outside tribes as enemies. In other words, religions improve survival via enhanced social cooperation.
- Mattson acknowledges that magical thinking about human divinity is a unique and fascinating persistent behavior but does not offer an explanation. I think the explanation is clear. Given the human brain’s tendency for magical thinking we should expect religious beliefs to include every conceivable wacky story, as they do, and we should statistically expect a few of those wacky stories to involve life after death, but they don’t, instead every one of the thousands of human religions has a life after death story which suggests there must be a separate genetic reason for the universal belief in life after death.
- Mattson thinks the primary cause of anxiety disorders and depression is defective SPP [superior pattern processing] resulting in a blurring of reality, self-doubt, and hopelessness. While no doubt true in some cases, Mattson does not consider that a defective ability to deny unpleasant realities can be the cause of mental illness. For example, fully accepting the science of human overshoot, climate change, and net energy decline coupled with an understanding that an individual cannot influence the outcome is a plenty strong reason for depression. In other words, magical thinking likely improves mental health.
One thing we can say about our fungal cousins. They are vastly better connected to the natural order of things than our species seems to be. Whatever tutorial began 100,000 years ago probably needs to resume.