The Life-changing Magic of Fungi | Merlin Sheldrake

Merlin Sheldrake

Have you ever noticed the fuzzy white mold on an old piece of bread or the colorful mushrooms popping up after a rainstorm? These seemingly mundane organisms are more astonishing than you might imagine. Lurking below the surface of our manicured lawns, wooded parks, and even our own bodies is an alien kingdom that shapes our lives in profound ways.

My guest today, biologist and author Merlin Sheldrake, provides an unprecedented glimpse into the hidden domain of fungi. His New York Times bestseller, Entangled Life, in which Sheldrake reveals a surreal microscopic cosmos that underpins the world we know, is now a lavish visual journey into the hidden lives of fungi. This new edition Entangled Life: The Illustrated Edition: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, abridged from the original, features over 100 full-color images that bring the spectacular variety, strangeness and beauty of fungi to life as never before.

Prepare to have your mind expanded and perception shifted as he illuminates one of the most influential yet overlooked forms of terrestrial life—fungi.

Though we rarely give fungi a second thought, they inhabit nearly every environment on earth. And they perform astounding chemical feats that provide the backbone for entire ecosystems—not to mention some of our favorite foods and medicines. Fungi form vast underground networks trading nutrients across miles. Their sprawling bodies act as reservoirs of chemical wisdom we’re only beginning to tap. 

Sheldrake takes us on an intellectual adventure to explore these alien forms of intelligence and their intricate interconnection with human cultures. After listening, you may never look at mold on your blueberries quite the same way again.

You can find Merlin at: Website | Instagram

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photo credit: Hanna-Katrina Jedrosz


Episode Transcript:

Merlin Sheldrake: [00:00:00] Thinking about fungi makes the world look different and different in quite an exciting way. Fungi have been busily evolving for over a billion years. So much of recognizable life on Earth has evolved together with fungi in ecosystems where fungi are playing vital roles, potentially in very close symbiosis with fungi, and certainly in an atmosphere maintained and and conditioned by fungal activity. So I think a world without fungi is really inconceivable. The world we live in is so inextricably bound up with fungal life and the evolution of fungal possibility, that I can’t really conceive of a world without them.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:44] So a question for you what do mushrooms, not the magic kind, have to do with a life well lived? What about the bigger category of those things called fungi? Have you ever noticed the fuzzy white mold on an old piece of bread, or the colorful mushrooms popping up after a rainstorm? These seemingly mundane organisms are more astonishing than you might imagine. Lurking below the surface of our manicured lawns, wooded parks, and even our own bodies is an alien kingdom that shapes our lives in profound ways. My guest today, biologist and author Merlin Sheldrake, gives us an unprecedented glimpse into the hidden domain of fungi. His New York Times best-seller, Entangled Life, in which he reveals a surreal, microscopic cosmos that underpins the world we know is now a lavish visual journey into the hidden lives of fungi. The new edition of Entangled Life, the illustrated edition How Fungi Make Our Worlds a bridge from the original, features over 100 full-color images that bring the spectacular variety and strangeness and beauty of fungi to life as never before. So prepare to have your mind really expanded and your perception shifted as Merlin illuminates one of the most influential yet overlooked forms of terrestrial life. Though we rarely give fungi a second thought, they inhabit nearly every environment on Earth, and they perform astounding chemical feats that provide the backbone for entire ecosystems, not to mention some of our favorite foods and medicines.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:18] Fungi form this vast underground network, trading nutrients and communications, and even actions and behaviors across miles. Their sprawling bodies act as these reservoirs of chemical wisdom that were only beginning to tap and that affect not only our environments, but us, our bodies, our health, our well-being, our mind in so many different ways. And in our conversation, Merlin takes us on an intellectual and emotional and adventure of discovery to explore these alien forms of intelligence and their intricate interconnection with human cultures. After listening, you may never look at mold on your blueberries quite the same way. So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


Jonathan Fields: [00:03:09] You’re just really excited to dive in the work that you’ve been doing and writing about it and reporting on and deepening into around fungi is, I think, fascinating. It’s something that if you’re not immersed in that world, probably not too many people just walking around on a day-to-day basis think about. And yet, as you so often describe, it is so central to not just the planet’s existence, but human existence. I think maybe a good starting point for us is really just ask the question, what are we actually talking about? When we talk about fungi, we’re talking.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:03:42] About a kingdom of life. And this is a taxonomic term. It’s as broad and busy a category as animals or plants. So there’s lots of ways to be a fungus and, you know, huge diversity within the fungal kingdom. So what we’re talking about when we say fungi is a very big group of organisms. We often think of mushrooms. But mushrooms are just a reproductive structures of fungi. The place where they produce spores and spores are a little bit analogous to plant seeds or pollen. They’re how fungi can disperse themselves over potentially large distances. But a small proportion of the total fungal kingdom produce mushrooms, and the ones that do produce mushrooms only produce mushrooms for a small period of time. So most fungi live most of their lives not as mushrooms, but as branching. Fusing networks of tubular cells called mycelial networks and mycelial networks, are how fungi feed. Animals tend to find food in the world and put it inside their bodies. But fungi do it differently. They put their bodies inside their food, and mycelial networks are a really effective way to do so. These networks grow from growing tips, and they burrow and insinuate themselves into whatever they happen to be eating, and digest it from the inside and then absorb the product of those digestion. So it’s a way of life. It’s a network way of life, and it’s a way of life very different from ours.


Jonathan Fields: [00:05:18] It’s interesting, as you describe that over the last couple of years, I think a lot of people have exposed the idea of a network of fungi, um, through, at least in the US, the HBO series The Last of Us, where all of a sudden, you know, there’s this notion of these organisms that are literally growing underneath the ground all around us and and potentially into us and through us in that context, in a terrifying way. But the network you’re describing, these mycelial networks, um, have really powerful constructive impact on the environment, on human existence. So when you talk about them as a sort of a network, I’m trying to imagine somebody listening into this and trying to visualize the vastness and the,, the structure of what this really looks like. Take me into this more because I really want to understand that.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:06:12] So as I said, there’s lots of ways to be a fungus and there’s lots of ways to be a mycelial network. It’s a bit like the word tree. The word tree is a generic tum that could describe a redwood sequoia, or it could describe a dwarf willow tree and growing in a windswept heath. All would be both of these would be trees. So you could have a mycelial network that’s produced by a mold, a type of fungus that lives on a speck of house dust. And you could also have a mycelial network which could sprawl over square kilometers. Indeed, some of the largest organisms that we know of are mycelial networks Armillaria, the species Armillaria that sprawl over over square kilometers. So just to emphasize that diversity and of course, yes, these are sensing bodies. And it’s very easy when we’re describing the life, life that in subvisible realms, it’s very easy for us to think about these mechanical terms. Or is this sort of just a schematic entities sort of vaguely engaged in processes, we might say. But I think it’s helpful to think about these as sensing bodies. Fungal networks are sensing their environment. They’re sensitive to heat, to light, to gravity, to any number of chemicals, to acidity, to electrical fields. And they’re able to integrate these data streams, these sensory data streams, and work out in their way a suitable course of action. And that might look like growing in this direction rather than that direction. It might look like withdrawing from this part of the world and expanding into a different part of the world.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:07:45] It might look like producing a certain type of chemical that might attract, confound, or kill an animal, a plant, or a bacterium around you, any number of different possibilities. So these are these are sensing bodies are closely entwined with their environment and closely entwined with what other organisms, fungal networks on the ground, can behave as super. Highways for bacteria to allow bacteria to travel through the cluttered obstacle course of the soil, and they can also form a really important networks that connect plants together. So these are doing things. These fungal networks are doing things in the biosphere and and many of the things they do, and many of the ways that they really help to shape and create the world that we know is many of these things are rooted in their chemical ingenuity. These are metabolic wizards. They’re able to transform matter from one state into another. We call this decomposition, but they’re able to decompose in very wild and peculiar ways, in in ways that other organisms often are not able to. So the way that fungi, for example, are able to break down tough polymers in wood when they evolve. This ability forever changed the way that carbon journeyed through its earthly cycles. So a lot of what fungi are doing is, is cycling nutrients, making nutrients available for other organisms, digesting the bodies of plants or animals or microbes, and acting like a kind of circulatory system for these nutrients in the biosphere.


Jonathan Fields: [00:09:19] It’s so fascinating the way you describe it and you write about this is through the notion of fungal intelligence. And there’s an intelligence that happens within these entities. You know, like when you look at it from the outside in, you’re sort of saying, well, where’s the brain here? And for something to exhibit, you know, quote behaviors that are both, you know, constructive and destructive and play a critical role in human flourishing and in the environmental flourishing. Um, I think the tendency is to say, like, where is this coming from? Like, can I point to the brain? Can I point to the decision-making center in these things? How do you look at the notion of fungal intelligence? Because it feels like there is an intelligence there, but it’s very different than the way that we would understand human intelligence. Yes.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:10:06] So I do think of it as intelligence, but I have quite a broad definition of intelligence, like a number of other biologists today who have been working to to deepen and expand the concept of intelligence, which used to refer largely to humans, we placed the human mind at the center of our inquiries in the cognitive sciences, which makes sense, I suppose. And so the human brain featured very largely in the way that we conceived of intelligence. But it’s much more variously defined today, and I think very helpfully so, as collections of behaviors. So you might think about intelligence behaviors. So you might think about, for example, not whether or not an organism is intelligent, but does it exhibit intelligent behaviors. And if so, what behaviors, what type of intelligent behaviors. And these behaviors might be the ability to make decisions between alternative courses of action, the ability to solve problems, the ability to adapt to a changing environment, processing information in a way which enhances their survival chances or their or their life in other ways. So if you think about it like this, and all life forms to some degree are intelligent, it’s just a basic feature of being alive. You know, living organisms have to solve problems. They have to, in their way, choose between alternative courses of action. And we live in a changing world. All organisms live in a changing world. And these are basic requisites. But I do think it’s helpful to think about it from an evolutionary point of view, because as humans, we’ve evolved to solve certain types of problems. So the intelligence that we have is a result of that evolutionary process. And and we are good at solving certain types of problems.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:11:43] And plants and fungi are bacteria. These organisms have evolved to solve very different sorts of problems. We would be useless in intelligence test cooked up by a plant, and if we were tested in a plants intelligence test for other plants, just as a plant might not be so good in a human intelligence test designed for humans. So I think that’s really key. And I think the world, the living world, becomes a much more interesting place when we think of when we think of it like that, it helps to, in my mind, at least, to alleviate some of the species narcissism that I’ve inherited from my education and my culture. It also helps me to think about the various different perspectives that there are in the world that all life forms have in their way. They’re all centers of some kind of experience, a centers of sensing the world. There is, in some way a perspective that they all have. And I think that really helps me to think about the living world and to appreciate the living world in a different way. As a biologist, it means that rather than trying to to unlock the secrets of an organism, according to me, I might start by saying, what is it like to be you? What is it like to experience this wild, wet world from your perspective? And I find that as soon as I ask that question, I step into a place where I am asking more. My inquiry is grounded in a much more. Expensive and a place of listening, and I find that personally to be a healthy place.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:13] Hmm. So you clearly have, um, a deep and enduring passion for this topic, which makes me really curious where that comes from. As you describe, the biologist could have focused in on so many different possible organisms or systems. I’m curious what draws you to this particular type of organism?


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:13:30] There’s been a few routes into fungal fascination for me, but my formal study of fungi begun at university. I was studying plant sciences, and I became very interested in about in the fungal relationships that all plants have. We were told about these relationships, but we weren’t told very much about them. So I was always I came away from lectures wondering, who are these, these fungal partners? I knew about fungi. I was interested in fungi, but I, I didn’t know quite how important they were in plant life. And the more I found out, the more I wanted to know. It’s a common thing among fungal enthusiasts. Is it kind of helter skelter of ever deepening fascination? And once you get on, it’s hard to get off. So at at some point that Helter Skelter picks up speed and you’re sliding down it and it is it’s actually a self-propelling. But yeah. So that was one way, one route in was through my fascination with the plant relationships with fungi and the way that these relationships seem to underpin so much of life on land. But I had other roots in I’d always been, well, since I was a teenager, I’d been fascinated by fermentation, both making alcohols and also foods. Fermented foods and fungi play important parts in those processes as well. It’s hard to ferment and not start to take an interest in these, in these creatures that can produce such wild flavors and effects. But originally, when I was a child, I became I first really understood the power of fungi. I suppose when I was a child, and I would have my father in the garden and I took out some, um, take out kitchen waste, buckets of kitchen waste from the kitchen and put them on the compost heap.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:15:05] And several months later I helped shovel the soil that they had become onto the flowerbeds. And I remember at one point it dawned on me that this was extremely strange. Like, I was puzzled, deeply puzzled and confused that orange peel and the banana skins that I’d taken out several months before had become soil. How had this happened? What was going on here? And it wasn’t at all clear to me how this kind of transformation could take place. My father explained that it was called decomposition, that this was something that was a performed by organisms that we couldn’t really see. And I became curious in these organisms because they seem to have such power, and yet I wasn’t able to see them do what they do. And I always used the powerful organisms being the big things, big creatures, big animals, whales, big trees, and I wasn’t. I remember this being a moment where I was surprised at something that was invisible, could or like. I couldn’t see doing what it was doing, could have such power. And so it struck me like a superpower. And it it really still does. Whenever I think about decomposition, I think of it as a superpower. And I it’s very easy to take it for granted. But it amazes me every time I spend more than about 10 seconds thinking about it.


Jonathan Fields: [00:16:12] So you had multiple pathways, and I know you also describe these organisms using the metaphor of a jungle, a symbiotic relationship between not just fungi, but also plants and trees as an interconnected jungle that really represents more broadly, the interconnectedness of life. I’m curious how you see this jungle-like ecosystem, this interconnectedness ecosystem as almost like as a map or in a way, almost like a blueprint for the broader idea of the interconnectedness of all of life.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:16:46] A tropical forest is one example, and it’s very vivid, like life is very vivid in a tropical forest because there are so many different ways to be alive, such diversity, so many species of animals, so many species of plant and microbe compared to where I live in England. And so this, this coexistence is just unignorable. In fact, I think coexistence is unignorable wherever one is. But it’s easier. Perhaps I found it easier to tell stories about individuality and autonomy and independence in not in tropical forests, because their life is is just. You can feel all these lives intertwining around each other and packed into such close space that the forest almost sort of hums with life. And when it does, it kind of shrieks and whoops in any number of noises with life. But you can feel something below that, like a kind of thrumming energy of the living, of the of the living world, which is very vivid. So in those situations it’s become unignorable, as I say, that that being is always being with. We are always being with other organisms, whether that’s other humans and microbes that live in and on us and without which we couldn’t do what we do, the food that we eat, which was all at once alive or may well be alive when we eat it, and so on.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:18:02] So being is always being with. And this is just a basic, fundamental truth. You know it’s not. Is not a complex idea. It’s not. It’s not a new idea. It’s a very ancient idea. But the reason why it’s powerful when thinking about the biological sciences as a human, is that so many of the stories that we tell ourselves in, in modern, post-industrial societies are about individuals. We have societies made up of neatly bounded individuals who fill out tax returns, who have passports proclaiming their separate, bounded individuality. And these stories of individuality separate us from other humans. They separate us from the living worlds of which we’re a part. And it makes it, I think, quite difficult for us to really fully understand how intertwined all life on Earth is. So that’s why I find this exploration of the ecological relationships a powerful mood of thought, and potentially a helpful type of thinking. At this point in time when we face so many problems as a species, many of which arise, in my view, from understanding of ourselves as neatly bounded individuals separated and separable from the living world.


Jonathan Fields: [00:19:16] So it’s almost like these organisms can teach us something about the truth of our interconnectedness. And maybe some of the failures of, quote, rugged individualism and also not just the failures, but the falsity of it. When you describe organisms you talked about earlier, sometimes we’re talking about organisms that are invisible to the eye and yet are deeply connected and sometimes might sprawl on for acres, kilometers. And you talk about them in a way that makes it sound like there’s communication that happens between these. What would be an example? And tell me, like how we might think about like, oh, well, this is an example of this sprawling network of organisms that seem to exist in the world that we can’t see, but they’re literally speaking to each other on a regular basis, and that that communication then informs behavior or changes in behavior that takes place.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:20:11] I think it’s a good way to think about the living world, as in, in terms of a networks of communication and information. If being is always being with, if we are always together with other organisms and we’ve got to manage our togetherness somehow and communication is vital. We communicate with other humans in body language and in sounds and in any number of other visual communicative cues, but there are whole channels of communication that we are, that our lives emerge from, that we’re not so aware of the hormonal communication between different parts of our body, the bioelectrical communication between different parts of our body and so on, and the communication, the chemical communication between us and our communities of microbes. So we live in a communicative world. Fungi make this point really clear because the way that they live, they and somehow embodying the basic principle of ecology, which is the connections between different organisms, they can make this vivid. So an example might be that of what we call a mycorrhizal fungus, a fungus that is living in symbiosis with plants and growing in and around plant roots and trading with plants, trading nutrients with plants in exchange for energy. Energy compounds like fats or sugars that the plant has made in photosynthesis. So managing a trading relationship with plant partners potentially more than one plant partner.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:21:37] But the fungus and the plant have got to find each other in the wilderness of the soil, where countless other lives course and engage. And the chemical babble is intense. So a fungus might release certain compounds which ribbon through the soil. They find a plant root, or encounter a plant root which starts growing towards those compounds up that gradient. And the plant root might change its developmental program. It might start branching more to increase the chance of encountering a fungus itself, producing chemicals which ribbon through the soil and change the behavior of the fungus, which grows faster and might branch more as it’s growing closer and closer to that root. When they meet each other, a whole other part of the conversation is chemical conversation has to take place. The fungus has to somehow suspend the plant’s immune system, indicating that it’s a potentially beneficial partner and not a disease causing fungus. Because the plant can’t just let any old fungus grow inside its root. So there’s a whole cellular conversation going on. The plant again changes its developmental program and allows the fungus in and around its cells. And they form special symbiotic structures which do not form when the fungus is by itself or when the plant is by itself. So these structures only arise out of their togetherness.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:23:01] And once they formed those structures, then they’ve got to start trading. And their trading requires a whole other set of communication, because the fungus is then got to communicate with other parts of itself, could be sprawled over meters. The trading conditions in one part of its network might be different from this part of the network, so it’s communicating with itself. The plant’s also communicating with other parts of itself, and neither of those are negligible challenges. And then the plants and the fungus engage in a trading in their trade. And the plant supplies the fungus with energy. And the fungus supplies the plant with nutrients. And and after a few days, then those, those structures, the symbiotic structures will die and degenerate. And they’ve got to form a new set of symbiotic structures. So these relationships are continually remodeling themselves, continually remaking themselves. And every time they’re remade, a whole chemical conversation has to take place. So that’s just one root tip and one growing tip of potentially large plant and a large fungal network that I described. And imagine that plant and that fungus with potentially millions of root tips, all engaged in similar types of interaction at the same time. And you start to get a sense of the intricacy of what we’re talking about.


Jonathan Fields: [00:24:09] Yeah. I mean, what you’re describing sounds like, you know, there is this network beyond what we see that exists underneath us, around us all day, every day that is constantly communicating and sharing information and making decisions and changing in ways that support not only itself, but the world around us and also us as human beings, not necessarily for the purpose of supporting us as human. Beings, but because we’re affected by this mentioned earlier in our conversation that I want to return to you, use the phrase and correct me if I got this wrong, that we think about most organisms as ingesting their food, but with fungi it’s the opposite. Tell me more about that.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:24:48] So usually for animals, the animals like us, and we tend to put food inside our bodies. So we have a tube with a mouth at one end and we put food into that tube. It’s technically outside our body still, because it’s still the surface of a body, but it’s within the boundaries of our operating body. So it’s we’re not burrowing into our food, and fungi burrow into their food. So if, say, a fungus is eating a block of wood, they’ll burrow into that block of wood so that they’re eating some rock. They’ll burrow into an itch their way along the surface of that rock. So they’re eating kerosene in the fuel tank of an aircraft. And that happens. There’s a kerosene fungus that lives in the fuel tanks of aircraft causes tremendous problems that would be living inside the kerosene. So it’s just a different way around, a different way of thinking about one’s interaction with with one’s sustenance.


Jonathan Fields: [00:25:40] Here’s the question that arises for me. Then. If fungi interact with human beings, um, can they or do they burrow their ways into us and treat us effectively as food sources for them?


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:25:54] That can happen. If anyone’s had athlete’s foot or fungal rashes, that’s there’s there’s fungal fungi living on the surface of our skin and, and burrowing into those surface layers of skin. We can have fungi living inside us in other ways. There’s various pathogenic yeasts which can make their life inside us. Yeasts aren’t mycelial, so yeasts don’t burrow in the same way that mycelial fungi do. But there are other mycelial fungi that do make their life inside us, and there are some molds that can make a life within our lungs. Some fungi can even live within our brains. One grisly. This is something that can happen, but there are also lots of fungi that make their life in and on us, which play really important roles. You can call it your microbiome, the fraction of your microbiome which is made up of fungi rather than bacteria.


Jonathan Fields: [00:26:46] So tell me more about that, because I think a lot of us have heard, especially over the last five, ten years or so, about this thing called the microbiome, and, you know, the bacteria that exist within us often, you know, focusing on the gut, on the intestines. And there’s certainly been a lot of interest in a lot of research and a lot of commercialization around how do we actually understand this, understand its role in human existence and health, even in how it affects our brain, our decision making, our thoughts, and also in our lack of health in illness and inflammation. But I haven’t heard a lot about it. And when we think about that often, you know, we’re thinking about bacteria. I haven’t had a lot of heard a lot about the micro side of this versus sort of like the micro. So take me there more because now I’m curious about this.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:27:35] So fungi are a kingdom of life that have not had a kingdoms worth of attention. And that applies in more or less every aspect of fungal study, including a microbiome study. So the bacterial fraction of our microbiome has been studied a lot more. And indeed it seems that we have a larger fraction of our microbiome, which is bacterial, but we have fungi in there as well. And exactly what they’re doing is really not well understood at this point. There are various roles that they can play in changing our, um, modulating our immune system and our and our metabolisms. And, and that’s very vague because our understanding is very vague. But we also have a communities of yeast which live on a linear orifices, which play really important roles in helping to keep out unwanted invaders. And those fungi can get out of control sometimes and cause problems, just like every other member of the microbiome. You know, it’s so funny when people talk about these are good bacteria or bad bacteria. And I’m always thinking, well, it kind of depends on the context. Like if you got a wound and a bacteria which played a vital role, like an A-lister playing vital role in your gut and got into your bloodstream, it could cause a life threatening sepsis. You know, at that point, is it a good bacteria? Was it a bad bacterium? So it’s very much about context. So yeah. So we have fungi living playing. We have fungi lining lining orifices and playing important roles on the way in and out of our body as well as fungi inside our body. Again, playing parts in this great orchestra of being in ways which are still poorly understood.


Jonathan Fields: [00:29:12] You mentioned two different particular types yeasts and molds. And I think those are two things that a lot of people have heard about yeast, I think we’ve heard about in multiple contexts, you know, like the benefits of it in baking and food in all sorts of things, but also within our systems. I think when we hear those two words yeast and mold or even in. Our environment where we often the immediate association is, oh, this is a bad thing. Like if this is inside of me, or if there’s mold in my environment, in the air or on a wall. These are things that are detrimental to human flourishing, that are actually negative for us as individuals. And it sounds like what you’re saying is this is a yes, and there may be things that are harmful to us, but at the same time, these may play incredibly not just helpful, but necessary roles in our well-being and our health and our ability to actually live the lives we want to live.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:30:06] Quite so. Yeah. And there are diseases which are yeasts which you would never want to get and can kill you. Also, many people go out and elect by yeast created products and consume them happily. Same with mold. You wouldn’t necessarily want mold growing on the walls of your bathroom, but life with no mold. Um, it would be, in my view, an impoverished life because that would exclude the mold that creates the cheeses that are delicious flavors. More importantly for me, the molds like Koji, which produce miso and soy sauce, um, and play a hugely important role in human nutrition and any number of other culinary molds. So yeah, it’s our first associations might be negative, but I think usually we’d be missing a large part of the picture in that judgment.


Jonathan Fields: [00:30:53] One of the areas of research that has evolved around the microbiome, which I found really fascinating, is the notion that a changing microbiome can actually affect not just our physiology, but our psychology, that depending on the makeup of your microbiome, it can literally change your thought processes, change your emotional processes. It can affect your behavior in ways that you’re not aware of. It can make you think things that you think you’re consciously and willfully thinking. And yet there are bacteria in our gut which are actually involved in our brain. Thinking certain things, feeling certain things, and making certain decisions. Do you see the same thing from fungi and when they’re internal to us?


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:31:36] I haven’t read research, which goes into the effect of our microbiome on our behavior in so much detail. I think it’s still early days in those studies, but we know that fungi do change our behavior through the compounds that they produce in all sorts of ways that might look like the compounds that create psychedelic experiences in human minds or alcohol. So our metabolisms and our cultures and our states of mind definitely dance with the chemical creativity of fungi.


Jonathan Fields: [00:32:09] Yeah, that makes sense, because if you think right. So alcohol is a byproduct of fermentation, which is then a part of a process that is derived from fungi. You bring up psychedelics. And certainly this has become a part of the zeitgeist. The conversation around psychedelics has become global. There are large research institutions now pouring a lot of interest and resources into these compounds, and largely for trying to understand how can they help human beings, especially how can they help human beings navigate some really hard things, like treatment resistant depression and anxiety and trauma and PTSD? It sounds like you make a distinction. And oftentimes when people talk about these things, they talk about things like the psychedelic, you know, like magic mushrooms, psilocybin. But what you’re talking about, it sounds like, is the compounds that are derived from these organisms and the way that those compounds then affect us.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:33:11] Yes. On the whole, when you eat them, say you eat them, uh, psilocybin producing mushroom. That mushroom is not going on to live inside your body. So you’re digesting it. And the compounds the psychoactive compounds are then acting on your body.


Jonathan Fields: [00:33:25] I’m curious to you on your take. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with some researchers in this space. What is your understanding, your take on how these compounds actually move through the human body and in some way affect human consciousness?


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:33:43] Well, these are always fun discussions because it’s not at all clear within mainstream scientific conversation how our conscious experience arises from our wet, complex, messy bodies. Um, this is a real puzzle. So I think that psychedelic studies are actually positioned in a really interesting place, because I think that apart from their biomedical applications and the ways that they can help people suffering from various psychiatric disorders and indeed can help people who are not suffering from psychiatric disorders just to lead fuller and better lives, though of course, they’re not suitable for everybody. These conversations are very interesting in putting the pushing hard on the question of. How it is that our minds and our conscious experience arises at all. So when it comes to current explanations and conversations about the mode of action of psychedelics, I find it’s very compelling. The works that suggest that psychedelics don’t increase our cerebral activity. They decrease the activity of key regulatory areas, which results in an unconstrained style of cognition. I think this is a very compelling account. It resonates with the Aldous Huxley’s account of the reducing valve of consciousness, act de consciousness, normal waking consciousness acting like a reducing valve to keep us focused, to allow us to focus, to allow us to do all the things that one has to do to survive.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:35:20] But when you knock out the reducing valve, then you experience a vast wilderness, a vast psychospiritual wilderness, which can be very exciting and very terrifying. So I think it’s very interesting that this work with, with brain scans have found that, that psychedelics seem to work by knocking out those reducing vowels, the default mode network, as it’s called. And I think that suggests some quite interesting things about consciousness, because if you thought that consciousness was a product of the activity or cerebral activity, the activity of your neurons in in the brain, then you would expect vast and vivid and wild experiences to be matched with much vaster, wilder and more undramatic cerebral activity. So it’s strange that it doesn’t seem to be quite that way, and would suggest that maybe consciousness is not something produced by our brain, emitted by our brain, but rather something that our brain might receive or constrain. That consciousness perhaps, is more than our brain, and our brains just allow us to channel that consciousness into a biological body. So that would be tending towards theories of consciousness that we might call panpsychism or idealism, which I find very interesting.


Jonathan Fields: [00:36:36] If you buy into that approach to consciousness, those types of theories, there’s a really nice overlay with the notion of the interconnectedness of the fungal world, which says that this intelligence exists not just within us and emitting from us, but all around us. And it’s something that we participate in and tap into as much as we generate on our own.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:36:57] Absolutely.


Jonathan Fields: [00:37:00] We’ve been talking a bit about how fungi exists in the world and what happens when it interacts with human beings. I want to zoom the lens out also, and talk about sort of the state of the world these days and some of the big problems that exist in the natural world that are in no small part related to the way that humans are interacting with that, that natural world, and how the fungal world might be able to address or help solve some of those, help in some way, heal some of what is ailing the planet right now. You know, like one of the things that is certainly part of the the daily conversation of a lot of people, and we’re seeing it show up in so many different ways in our lives, is the notion of how the climate is changing. I wonder what your take is on how we might look at opportunities presented to us by the fungal world as potential interventions or remedies for what’s going on around us. In that context, I.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:38:00] Think there are lots of ways that we can partner with fungi to help adapt to life on a damaged planet and, um, in so many different arenas of life. So you might think about food, people who have eaten mushrooms for a very, very long time. It’s a staple that mushrooms are staple foods in many parts of the world, but it provides a huge opportunity. Today, we could grow healthy, nutritious, potentially medicinal crops of mushrooms on agricultural waste, so diverting waste streams to produce a valuable foodstuff in a matter of weeks inside, without the need for for large areas of land. So I think there’s a lot of potential there. And many of these, you know, many of these things I’m going to talk about, these are they have long roots in human history. You know, they’re not these aren’t brand new ideas. But I think there are ways that we can combine traditional knowledge and and practices with the sharp tools of modern science to turbocharge and to develop these, deepen and expand them. So foods, medicines. Humans have been using fungal medicines for an incredibly long time. Fungal medicines have transformed modern medical practice. Penicillin is a famous case. There are lots of other examples, and there are lots of fungal drugs that remain to be discovered. And I say that with confidence because there are so many fungal compounds that are produced and so few of them we have described and examined, and even within that relatively small proportion, we found lots of lots of useful compounds that can either help us or help organisms that we depend on.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:39:37] I’m thinking of the work of Paul Stamets and Steve Shepherd at Washington State University, who have found that fungal antiviral compounds can prolong the life of bees and help them to withstand colony collapse disorder. So food, drugs, whenever we cultivate plants, we’re cultivating fungal relationships. So agriculture and forestry can be transformed by becoming more ecologically literate, by thinking about the many fungal relationships that sustain plant life, that create soil, that contain the integrity of soil. A lot of industrial agriculture and forestry today is practiced in a not very mythologically literate way, thinking actually quite not so much about what takes place in the soil and the many lives that froth away inside the soil. So I think industries and activities can be reformed and developed to take on board research into, into fungi and fungal relationships. And actually many of those practices will look a little bit like traditional agricultural and forestry practices, which on the whole took much greater care of the soil. So there’s that building materials, new types of building material are being produced from mycelium using composites of mycelium and agricultural waste like corn stalks to make blocks or sheets of a foam like material. You can use it as packaging. You can use it as acoustic tiles, you can use it as insulation, and you can make also a leather like material, which can being developed and researched right now, but shows great promise in in replacing leather in a number of applications. So building stuff.


Jonathan Fields: [00:41:14] This literally touches into almost anything that you could imagine. And harnessing the capabilities of fungi in sounds like there’s an innovation process that can think about. I mean, I almost wonder if, like you look at almost anything that we’re thinking about, any problem we’re thinking about solving. And if you ask the question, what would happen if we introduced fungi into this equation? Is there some way for us to either bring the organisms into it in a way that is directly beneficial? Or what can we learn from the lessons of how these organisms exist that might actually help us problem solve? And maybe more broadly, I think that’s another interesting question is like when we look at the way that these organisms have endured forever, really and continue to thrive and change and constantly adapt and problem solve. You know, I wonder, is there research that you’re aware of that has been going on or. Is going on that is almost looking at these organisms as a way to teach us how to be better innovators, better problem solvers, better creators.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:42:22] One of the exciting things about this broadening wave of interest in fungal life is that there are so many different people with different kinds of backgrounds, different ways of thinking, different trainings, different experiences coming to think about fungi, some often to work with fungi to cultivate fungi, interact with fungi in different ways, and it’s thrilling to think about all of these points of contact as an opportunity for insight and this broader, this much more diverse group of people thinking about fungi. I think it brings us into contact as a species with fungi in a much more, um, a fizzy kind of way. So I’m intrigued to see what comes out of that. But yeah, there are people in the arts, there are people in humanities, in the art world, and architecture and fashion in the culinary worlds, thinking with fungi in all sorts of exciting ways and the various ways that we might learn from fungi, you know, and these might fall into different types of learning. So you might think about fungi as teaching us about the intermingling and the enmeshment of all life on Earth. They’re kind of poster organisms for ecological thinking. Um, they teach us that. They might teach us about that. There’s no waste in the living world. We are dysfunctional. Philosophies of waste put a factory at one end and a landfill at the other. But that’s really not how the living world works. And so you might start to think in terms of cycles. So the waste product of one stage of, of life is opportunity for the next stage.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:43:48] We might think about decentralized life, like fungi are decentralized organisms with decentralized ways to solve problems. And so you might think about the ways that we might build decentralized networks to, um, that are robust to perturbation. You might think about all the ways that that fungi teach us about the open endedness of life. Mycelial network is a body without a body plan. There’s no stage at which it could be said to be fully grown, you know, so that life is open ended and a process always in the continual process of unfolding. I think fungal networks really make that clear to us as well. They might teach us about the power of what lies hidden, what’s unseen, what lies beneath the surface, what lies below the surface, the ways that the subvisible realms. This might be the deep, deep ocean. It might be all of the organisms that live in the soil. 25% of all creatures on the planet live in the soil. All of these lives that we can’t see, fungi can remind us, at least remind me of the importance of these life forms. And it would be all too easy for us to forget those beings that we can’t see. So these are just some ways that that we might think with fungi in broader terms, and some of the ways that I’ve found people in disparate disciplines starting to think and engage with fungi and, and learn from them on, on a human level.


Jonathan Fields: [00:45:07] Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s they’re very much our teachers. It sounds like in a lot of different ways if we would allow them to be. So I’m imagining and I think I know your answer to this question, um, is a world without fungi, a world that exists in any way?


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:45:22] Certainly not this world. I think fungi have been busily evolving for over a billion years. So much of recognizable life on Earth has evolved together with fungi, in ecosystems where fungi are playing vital roles, potentially in very close symbiosis with fungi, and certainly in an atmosphere maintained and and conditioned by fungal activity. So I think a world without fungi is really inconceivable. There could well be alternative worlds, you know, life could have taken all sorts of different directions, and maybe other organisms would have evolved that played those roles. But certainly the world we live in is so inextricably bound up with fungal life and the evolution of fungal possibility that I can’t really conceive of a world without them.


Jonathan Fields: [00:46:10] Are we at risk of losing parts of that ecosystem in any meaningful way these days, or is this just an ecosystem that was here for billions of years before us and will be here for billions of years, potentially after?


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:46:28] So fungi have persisted through five major extinction events events where Earth systems collapsed and transitioned in often very violent ways. But many fungal species would have died out at every one of these points. So fungi as a lineage persisted. It’s not to say that all fungi that have ever lived have persisted. And so in the moment we find ourselves in today possible our systems collapse. I’m fairly convinced that fungi will persist, but a lot of fungi will have grave difficulties and many will go extinct. We do all sorts of damage to fungi all the time through many activities. So industrial agriculture, application of fungicides, obviously deep ploughing, application of all sorts of chemical nutrients, herbicides these all disrupt fungal life. Deforestation disrupts the life of many fungi. Because many fungi depend on plants to survive. We are degrading the world’s soils as so much soil is. Topsoil is being eroded. This is a key habitat for many fungi. So when we destroy these fungal habitats, we drastically constrict their possibilities for existence. So these are just some of the ways that we are disrupting fungal life and at great cost, because fungi play such important roles in Earth’s ecosystems, when we disrupt them, we jeopardize the ecosystems in which we live and on which we depend. So this is certainly an issue.


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:47:58] And one of the really big issues is that fungi, as I say, then, a kingdom of life that had not received a kingdom’s worth of attention in all of the areas of human study, including conservation. And so fungi are rarely mentioned in conservation frameworks. In our litanies of endangered species, very few fungi are represented. And this is a really big problem, because our efforts to conserve the plant and animal world will be fruitless, unless we are also taking into account the fungi which play such a play, such vital roles. So I’m working with a number of organizations and initiatives to try and change this, and one’s called the Fungi Foundation. Another is the three FS initiative, the fauna Flora Fungi initiative. And the idea there is that whenever you say flora and fauna in a conservation initiative, you should add fungi and just add that. Third F and another organization called the society for the Protection of Underground Networks, or spun, where we’re trying to map the mycorrhizal communities of the planet to produce reliable maps that could be used to inform decisions and policy. So we can start to factor in the lives in the underground. When we go about deciding what gets built where or what gets conserved where.


Jonathan Fields: [00:49:10] Yeah, I mean, it sounds like, you know, the when we can see things with our own eyes and point to them, it’s probably easier to rally attention around their role in the planet, the role in our lives, role in existence. Whereas when you have an entire universe that exists sort of beyond the easy site, it probably doesn’t get as much attention, even though it is critically important. If you could leave our listeners with a single big insight, big idea, invitation for action, taking whatever feels most relevant to you in the context of this conversation of fungi and the role that they play, what would it be?


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:49:53] Well, the thought that comes to mind is actually a very simple thought, which is just sit. Thinking about fungi makes the world look different and different in quite an exciting way.


Jonathan Fields: [00:50:02] It feels like a good place for us to come full circle as well. So in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up for me?


Merlin Sheldrake: [00:50:11] What comes up is a life in which one tends one relations with one’s self, one’s human family and families, and wider human circles, but also relationships with with more than human organisms and communities of more than human organisms. So a life lived in, in awareness and a feeling of intimate reciprocal dependence and respect for the many lives that we dance with and the many lives that make our own lives possible, even conceivable.


Jonathan Fields: [00:50:43] Thank you. Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode safe bet, you will also love the conversation we had with Adam Gazzaley about psilocybin and those things that we know as magic mushrooms or psychedelics. You’ll find a link to his episode in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help by Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did since. You’re still listening here. Would you do me a personal favor? A seven-second favor and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.


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