Mycelium is the connective tissue in an ecology. It sews much of the world into relation. It is also how fungi feed. Instead of digesting food inside their body, like plants, animals, and humans, fungi digest food and then absorb it into their bodies.
If the digestive tract of fungi is a network outside the fungi, does it have a brain? Mycelium has been shown to display what we understand as intelligent behavior. It can learn and make decisions based on what it has learned. Some researchers argue that the question is not whether the mycelium has cognition or not but rather to what degree mycelium might be cognisant. What I find fascinating is that intelligent behaviors in these beings arise without brains.
Mycelium is not the only being that displays brainless intelligence. Researchers trained a flatworm to remember features of its environment and then cut off its head. When it had grown a new head and brain, it would retain the memory.
This might be challenging to grasp in a society in which we give all our credit to the brain. Yet, it is now well established that much of our thinking happens outside of the brain. It is referred to as embodied cognition, a theory stating that many features of cognition, whether human or otherwise, are shaped by aspects of an organism’s entire body.
Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, philosophers like Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty started to use a framework called phenomenology. They pointed out that human consciousness cannot exist in some abstract, transcendental mind. All consciousness is derived from the experience of phenomena, and experience fundamentally depends on the body.
The philosopher David Abram puts it in these poetic words:
“Without this body, without this tongue or these ears, you could neither speak nor hear another’s voice. Nor could you have anything to speak about, or even to reflect on, or to think, since without any contact, any encounter, without any glimmer of sensory experience, there could be nothing to question or to know. The living body is thus the very possibility of contact, not just with others but with oneself – the very possibility of reflection, of thought, of knowledge.”
And the body is always somewhere in the world, sensing and perceiving the environment. There is no clear boundary between where the body begins and the environment ends. Instead, we are in a constant, what Merleau-Ponty calls, embodied inter-becoming.
Like mycelium feed the fungi, our environment feeds our cognition.