Growth and Power
Edited by Maija Utriainen
Fungi: Friend or Foe?
There was a certain type of growth occurring in a top floor attic classroom in a South London primary school. A white mug with old coffee sat on our teacher’s dark wooden desk at the front of the classroom, amid chaotic towers of books and paperwork. Inconspicuous and seemingly insignificant, it had been sitting there for at least a week. My teacher had decided it would be “exciting” to see what grew from the stale beverage. As 10 year old students, we were equally enthusiastic about this ad hoc experiment. My teacher was unorthodox in his teaching methods, but what better way to learn? Science in action. The best way to learn. We were intrigued as the surface of the cold coffee began to slowly acquire unique islands of fluffy white mould. A week and a half later, a single white mushroom emerged from one of the mouldy islands in the coffee. We were all proud of our mushroom, it was like having a house plant before that was cool. A small yet perfect specimen. One morning however (two weeks into our experiment) we discovered the cleaner had tidied our teacher’s messy desk (no easy feat) and thrown the contents of the coffee mug away. A brief minute of silence ensued for our collective loss. We were disappointed that we had not been able to grow a multitude of mushrooms, but at least we had grown and witnessed the flourishing of one. We were not too disheartened and it was the topic of conversation for quite some time. And there was always next time, we all excitedly thought.
Today, a move such as growing fungus in the classroom would probably get a teacher suspended or trigger some sort of investigation for causing a health hazard that has the potential to harm students under a teacher's care. Mould is intriguing and is wonderful, but it can also be a household nightmare, and even deadly. Recently, a two year old from Rochdale died after “chronic exposure” of extensive black mould in the social housing in which the boy lived (Brown and Booth, 2022). Some would be shocked by the capability of mould to cause death and this is a tragic example of what happens if black mould is left to fester.
But is black mould so deadly, that we should all be inspecting our homes with a fine toothed comb? Mould loves damp places and 12% of English buildings are considered seriously damp (Kuhn and Ghannoum, 2003). In fact, mould in houses is a very common nuisance. Its favourite place in the home are damp ones such as window sills, bathrooms and basically anywhere you have condensation. Black moulds that are most commonly found in the home are often Cladosporium or Alternaria fungi (Sample, 2022). Another black mould, Stachybotrys chartarum, even releases toxins that are harmful to humans which can cause symptoms such as wheezing, a cough or lightheadedness. Those most at risk are babies, young children, people with respiratory conditions and weakened immune systems. Mould in social housing or with housing associations is another issue entirely. It is beyond the scope of the discussion here, as often, there are several complex factors for negligence of the properties and cause of mould growth. There has however been a lot of recent media coverage over the dangers of black mould. Whilst I do not suggest you ignore large swathes or collections of the stuff visibly growing on your bathroom ceiling or on your window. In private housing, people basically need to use their common sense and address damp patches, ventilate areas in their home, and you're less likely to have mould or the dreaded black mould. You really just have to be sensible.
Fungi are not all bad though. Their growth and existence can be vital. It has an integral role within medicine which is ever growing. There lies an interesting paradox when thinking about fungi. Fungi has this wonderful way of being both potentially harmful and on the other end of the spectrum, life saving. Fungi are vital pharmaceutically, when we consider certain life saving drugs. Cyclosporine for example, is an immunosuppressant drug that enables transplants to be possible by preventing rejection of the donated organ (Sheldrake, 2020, p. 10) This drug is widely manufactured by the submerged fermentation of aerobic fungi known as Trichoderma polysporum. It is not just with immunosuppressants where fungi have been a game changer for medicine. There are antiviral drugs and anti-cancer drugs to name a few. But have you ever thought if fungus could help us psychologically?
Psilocybin is a compound that has received a lot of attention for its results surrounding depression and addiction. It is produced by more than 200 species of fungi, and is the active element in psychedelic mushrooms (Sheldrake, 2020). Once injected into the body, the synthetic version of psilocybin can trigger a plethora of “psycho-spiritual effects”. Psilocybin in the body is converted to its psychoactive metabolite, the chemical psilocin. Psilocin stimulates the receptors in the brain that are usually stimulated by serotonin, the neurotransmitter. Psilocin essentially intervenes in the paths of electrical signals in our body and is known to be able to change the structure of neurons (Sheldrake, 2020, p. 122). The study “Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Program” demystified how psilocybin changes patterns of neuronal activity (Beckley, 2022). They gave participants a dose of psilocybin and monitored brain activity. The brain scans carried out revealed that rather than increasing brain activity (which is what they were expecting), psilocybin instead reduced activity in certain areas of the brain. The brain activity that was reduced is what is known as the default mode network (DMN). Our DMN is usually active while one is self-reflecting, letting one's mind wander or thinking about past or future plans. Studies showed that participants who felt the greatest “loss of a sense of self” had the bigger reductions in activity in regard to their DMN (Sheldrake, 2022). What does this all mean for people with severe and unseemingly untreatable psychological problems?
It is patients who reported positive therapeutic experiences with psilocybin that is important. The use of psilocybin in clinical trials has shown to lift severe levels of depression and anxiety in patients. The results have been considered close to miraculous for treating a range of psychiatric issues (Sheldrake, 2020, p. 119). Two studies running in tandem for example at New York University and John Hopkins University in 2016 prescribed psilocybin as well as psychotherapy for participants with depression, anxiety and “existential stress” after being given a terminal cancer diagnosis. According to the results of the study, after one dose of psilocybin, 80% of participants considered there was reduction with their reported psychological symptoms and this was the case with some patients up to 6 months later (Sheldrake, 2020). In general, there were improved levels of quality of life and people feeling more interconnected. The thing that was considered mindblowing for one of the senior researchers on the study (Roland Griffiths) who had carried out the interviews at the end of the study, was that over 70% of participants considered taking this dose of psilocybin as one of the top 5 meaningful moments in their lives (Griffiths, 2016). Are these people leading incredibly boring lives? Griffiths asked himself the same question, and it turns out the experience of taking psilocybin was compared to situations such as people giving birth to children or death of parents. Thus, this study was seen as groundbreaking in modern medicine for its positive psychiatric intervention with psilocybin (Griffiths, 2016). It was not a one off either. Several other studies with psilocybin have reported dramatic changes in people and can induce a “mystical” experience within people. Moreover, people in these studies have said they have felt a better connection with the world and a greater appreciation for the natural world (Sheldrake, 2016, p. 120). On reflection, researchers argue that it seems that psilocybin enables people to be more open to experiences, and enables them to be more flexible or pliable in their thinking, which is often needed if someone is in the throes of addiction or depression and is stuck with a rigid way of thinking (Sheldrake, 2020, p.124).
Psilocybin, however, cannot be relied on as a long term solution for treating depression and anxiety. Some participants in these studies did not have a positive experience with psilocybin. Although some people found taking psilocybin “liberating”, others found the experience terrifying. In the John Hopkins study, 25% of participants experienced terror. A participant called Mark described his experience as “six hours of terror”, even though taking psilocybin also helped him for fleeting periods of time. Therefore, a “bad trip” is not mythical, and can reportedly happen in quite a bad way (Hari, 2019, p.289). What is the solution to such a dilemma? Johann Hari discusses how psilocybin essentially dismantles the ego, leaving one vulnerable. You wouldn't leave someone without their ego to wander the streets, because our ego protects us. However, our ego is problematic when it grows too big, and people find it difficult to make connections. Dismantling it should not be done trivally. Indeed, researchers argue the point of taking psilocybin is to help people to build healthy relationships with their ego (Hari, 2019). If we return to Mark, the positive experiences he did have with psilocybin, he mirrored the emotional effects as closely as possible with meditation. This enabled him to feel a sense of “connection” that he had felt before but without psilocybin. As a result of this, social anxiety that he struggled with did not plague his life constantly (Hari, p. 290). In order to reap the benefits of psilocybin, it is therefore not for long term use. Essentially, being psilocybin in the long term is never a good idea because of the way it can leave one vulnerable in terms of dismantling their ego. Having said that, no study has investigated the long term effect of psilocybin, or the enduring effects are not really known (Barrett, Doss and Griffiths, 2020). Essentially, it seems researchers are being cautious as more research needs to be done. It can however, as research has shown, help individuals grow out of rigid thinking patterns, but they then have to be replaced in the long run by something else (like meditation) that can mirror such positive experiences.
Returning to my childhood connection with fungi, our teacher did grow more islands of mould in his coffee mug. It was more probably due to his messy nature, than a desire to see if we could grow another mushroom. The islands were superbly unique and it revealed to me as a 10 year old just how entangled fungi are in our lives, and how exciting fungi can be. Fungi can be a danger, but grown and utilised in a certain way, it can be an immense aid for humanity. The world of fungi can take many forms and it really can be a surprise what form that fungi will grow into or take. The uses of it may not yet be known in our world, but they are just waiting to be discovered.
Barrett, F, Doss, M and Griffiths, R, (2020) Emotions and brain function are altered up to one month after a single high dose of psilocybin, Nature, (Accessed, 2 December 2022) Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-59282-y
Brown, M, and Booth, R, (2022), ‘ Death of two-year-old from Mould in a flat a ‘Defining Moment’, says coroner’ in The Guardian, (Accessed 25 November 2022) Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/nov/15/death-of-two-year-old-awaab-ishak-chronic-mould-in-flat-a-defining-moment-says-coroner
Hari, J, (2019), Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing)
Kuhn, D.M and Ghannoum, M. A, (2003) Indoor Mold, Toxigenic Fungi, and Stachybotrys chartarum: Infectious Disease Perspective, Clinical Microbiology Reviews, (Accessed 21 November 2022) Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC145304/
Sample, I, (2022) What is black mould and what health problems can it cause?, The Guardian, (Accessed 25 November 2022) Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/nov/15/what-is-black-mould-health-problems-cause