In “The Last of Us,” the fungal disease that turns people into “infected” creatures is based on a real-life fungus called Cordyceps that infects insects and controls their behavior. Science fiction? Hell yes. But it’s based on real science. Turns out mushrooms might have a consciousness despite having no nervous system. So the question is: how well can fungus think?
Some experts argue that fungi may have a form of consciousness that rivals that of animals or humans. It all boils down to the mycelia. Mycelia are thread-like structures that make up the vegetative part of fungi. They range in size from just a few cells to several acres.
Mycelium in fungi collects intelligence and transmits it to anything they’re connected to — information about how to survive and fight disease, warnings of nearby dangers, and also ways to raise a host plant’s defenses.
In “The Last of Us,” merely, stepping on an active filament from the fungus can trigger the fungal zombies from much further away to activate and attack them.
Different Levels of Consciousness
Most of us are so hardwired to think of humans with brains as the only things that have a consciousness. Yet if we consider consciousness a continuum, then this opens up the possibility for less complex organisms to have self-awareness.
I’m not suggesting that mushrooms lead rich, emotional lives. Yet fungal mycelia resemble neural pathways and can span vast distances, creating a web of communication and cooperation that shapes entire ecosystems.
Fungi does support a rudimentary level of consciousness. Mycelia show decision-making capabilities, such as spatial recognition, learning, and short-term memory.
Cordyceps, the culprit for the apocalyptic situation in “The Last of Us,” exhibits complex and highly adaptive behaviors that allows it to manipulate its host and ensure its own survival.
Cordyceps is based on a real world fungus that infects insects. One species of Cordyceps causes infected ants to climb to the top of a plant and attach themselves to a leaf, where they eventually die and release spores that can infect other ants.
In “The Last of Us,” the fungus is portrayed as having a sort of hive mind, with infected individuals acting as part of a larger organism, seeking to spread the infection to new hosts.
Perhaps we have already been infected by such a fungus, and they continue to keep us alive and breathing to propagate their own species.