2 MINUTE READ
While scientists have a significant amount of evidence in support of human evolution, the leap to self-consciousness has yet to be explained. Obviously, this missing link is intriguing, and my interest was piqued last week while watching the Netflix documentary, Fantastic Fungi, which posits a hypothesis that psilocybin may have played a role in our brain development.
Psilocybin is found in more than 180 species of mushrooms, which first evolved on the planet approximately 800 million years ago. When ingested, the body converts psilocybin into psilocin, which has psychoactive properties that increase activity in areas of the brain associated with dreaming and our ancient emotional system. It is also known to expand conscious awareness, i.e. the “breath of associations made by the brain and the ease by which they are visited is enhanced.” All of which make for a compelling argument that sustained ingestion could have resulted in permanent changes to our ancestral brains over time.
Please note that I am not advocating for this hypothesis, which would be difficult to valiadate anyway. I also don’t think it’s sound reasoning to suggest something as complex as the evolutionary process to higher thinking can be reduced to one primordial moment or movement.
I’m only stating here that it’s an interesting idea to contemplate; one that potentially aligns with notable gains in our cognitive ability approximately 200,000 years ago.
The thinking behind this idea is that early humans, migrating around the African plains, may have, over a significant period of time, consumed mushrooms containing psilocybin. And that this dietary predilection could have contributed to the expansion of their cognitive capacity to the point of conscious awareness.
Another perspective -
A very different theory (and one given much more credence by the scientific community), proposes that our higher thinking evolved as the brain sought to process incoming signals and was forced to prioritize certain signals over others (this is a very simplistic explanation, obviously, you can read in detail about Attention Schema Theory here). This theory suggests that consciousness evolved gradually (over, say, a half billion years) and is present in an array of non-human species. It is of particular interest to scientists as, if proven true, advancements could lead to infusing future AI-technology with self-awareness.
Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory | The Origins of Inebriation: Archaeological Evidence of the Consumption of Fermented Beverages and Drugs in Prehistoric Eurasia
Scientific American | Does Self-Awareness Require a Complex Brain?
Progress in Neurobiology | Control and the Attention Schema Theory of Consciousness
Drug Science | Psilocybin
psys.org | First Mushroom Appeared Earlier Than Previously Thought
The Conversation | Magic Mushrooms Expand Your Mind and Amplify Your Brain's Dreaming Areas (Direct quote attribution)