Joe Rogan may be known to many as ‘that guy from Fear Factor’, or ‘that guy from UFC’, but for the last few years he’s been hosting a podcast, interviewing some of the world’s most controversial, interesting and intelligent people. Arguably, his most famous guest appeared on the show in September of 2018: Elon Musk. Engaging conversation and strange antics ensued, leading to many new listeners of the podcast. This backdrop rolled out a red carpet for the ‘Monarch of Mushrooms’ who would appear on the show only a month later: Paul Stamets.
For those who haven't seen or heard the podcast, it can be found here.
A familiar name for many reasons
Even if you haven’t watched the podcast, or know anything about mushrooms, you may still recognize the name. Bryan Fuller, creator of the television series Hannibal and Star Trek: Discovery, has characters named after Stamets in both. Most notably Lieutenant Commander Paul Stamets (portrayed by Anthony Rapp), is Chief Engineer of the USS Discovery. In the show, he’s an astromycologist, and is credited with discovering a ‘mycelial network’ that is being cultivated on board the USS Discovery to promptly ‘jump’ between two distant coordinates in space.
While this may be argued as an allegory for psychedelic ‘space travel’, it is undoubtedly a sincere recognition and reverence for their namesake. Stamets is somewhat of a ‘poster child’ or figurehead of modern mycology. He was an amateur enthusiast that first fell in love with his fungal friends through the passion of his older brother. "He inspired me on my path into the field of mycology, after his travels to Mexico and Colombia in pursuit of magic mushrooms" in the 1970s.
The fact that his first interest in mushrooms would be those of the ‘magic’ varieties would go on to characterize, but not define, his career and ambitions. He claims that a psilocybin experience at 19 cured his stutter and spurred his devotion. He has since become an over-the-top ‘Pharoah of Fungi’ and is at his best with cameras rolling and microphones front-and-center. He captured attention and interest with his appearance on Joe Rogan’s show; however, for many, he left behind more questions than answers.
The important questions
Wait, what’s up with the hat?
Stamets is hardly ever seen without his characteristic hat, unsurprisingly made of fungal material. More specifically, it is made of Amadou or ‘German felt’; the spongy material from the processed ‘hoof-’ or ‘tinder-fungus’ (Fomes fomentarius). His particular hat is straight from Transylvania, not an easy item to acquire.
What’s ‘mycophobia’ and why does he hate it?
‘Mycophobia’ is the fear of fungi, or mushrooms. ‘Magic mushrooms’ have received a bad rap in light of legislation and the ‘War on Drugs’. Many believe that even brushing against a mushroom in the forest might lead to a swift death. These are misconceptions that Stamets has devoted his life to overturning. Mushroom-related deaths are incredibly rare and only related to consumption, not simple contact. Paul encourages everyone to get up-close and personal with the fungi they find, to learn and explore what nature has to offer.
Are mushrooms ‘connected’? What is this ‘network’ he talks about?
Mushrooms are only a small part of most ‘fruiting’ fungi. To see mushrooms as ‘fruits’ is a helpful example: apples are formed to spread the seeds (genetics) of the tree that bore them; however, they are only a small fraction of the total mass of the organism, roots, branches, leaves and all. Fungi are similar: mushrooms are only organs to further genetic lines, the ‘body’ of the organism lives underground as mycelium.
Stamets makes a point of saying that 30% of the mass of the ground we walk upon, is fungal material. This is the ‘network’ that he speaks of: a vast net of interconnected organisms that, he claims, are able to communicate at a distance and coordinate responses to changes in the environment.
What’s a ‘stoned ape’, and why isn’t PETA concerned?
A ‘stoned ape’ is a theory, not an experiment. Terence McKenna, an early pioneer in psychedelic research and popularization, coined the term to describe a hypothesis for early human evolution. He mused that early ‘proto-humans’ consumed psychedelic substances, often mushrooms in the narrative, that subsequently expanded their minds to abstract thought over generations of use.
While the story lacks supporting evidence, it is nonetheless an amusing notion to consider.
What’s wrong with ‘shrooms’?
Stamets mentioned that he detests the word ‘shroom’, preferring mushroom. He considers it a belittling of the power of psilocybin and the wonders of fungal abilities. Ultimately, it’s a preference, I’m sure he would consider any interest in mushrooms to be better than none.
What’s Lion’s Mane, and why isn’t PETA concerned?
Lion’s Mane is the common name for Hericium erinaceus, an edible fungus that is near and dear to Stamets. Among its many claims to fame, it is purported to assist in myelin regeneration, helping to prevent and possibly even treat Alzheimer’s Disease. Regardless, recent research by Üstün et al. (2018) demonstrated neuroprotective outcomes of H. erinaceus extracts on the brain cells of mice.
Stamets suggests that combining Lion’s Mane and Niacin (Vitamin B3) with ‘microdoses’ of psilocybin, commonly known as a ‘stack’ of supplements, may potentiate the positive outcomes associated with microdosing psilocybin.
Can an ‘environmental immune system’ protect the bees?
The mycelial networks that permeate the soils of the earth may contribute to something akin to an environmental immune system, Stamets suggests. He recalls seeing bees consuming the water that accumulated on certain mushrooms and mycelium. Considering the current plight of bee populations, he muses on the fungal capacity to protect bees and humans alike with immune-boosting mushroom extracts.
Seattle Times article by Michael Unchurch, "Obituary: John Stamets, photographer of Seattle’s ever-changing skyline" June 13, 2014
Üstün, Ramazan, and Peray Ayhan. "Regenerative activity of Hericium erinaceus on axonal injury model using in vitro laser microdissection technique." Neurological research (2018): 1-10.