Lichen-like Mind: Singularity in the Absence of ‘I’
If the word cyborg — short for cybernetic organism — describes the fusion between a living organism and a piece of technology, then we, like all other life-forms are symborgs, or symbiotic organisms.
— Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life
Even if the microbial cells in our bodies outnumber our ‘own’ cells, it can be maddening to consider the ‘self’ as anything else. Cows are incapable of digesting grass, but the microbes who thrive in their gut can. No complex life exists without playing host to countless others, for better and sometimes worse. Lichen present a curious case of lifeforms, the kind of being(s) that have no clear beginning or end. The more one delves into the micro-verse of the fungi/algae symbiosis, the more dizzying lichen becomes, with attendant microbiomes within the biomes they are. Some lichen can lie dormant in space-like conditions for a decade — as far as we know, which is little — before a little water clears them of their deathlike-quiet and they resume, as if nothing more than a seasonal drought had passed. To put it terribly briefly, lichen are composed of fungi latching onto algae, since the latter can photosynthesize, a symbiotic relationship that reaches back to the origins of life. Lichen can genetically modify themselves horizontally, meaning proximity without sex or parentage can change their code, just like that. There is no consensus on what a lichen actually is, since the fungi, algae, yeasts, etc. that constitute it have no clear seat of metaphorical consciousness. Nobody is at the helm and everyone is, lichen is a thing and lichen is many things, a survivor and a literal micro-biome, a little world unto itself. The more one thinks about it, the more the human brain seems like a metaphorical match, if not something lingering on that bridge. As far as our human bodies go, “We are all lichens.”
The human binary view has made it difficult to ask questions that aren’t binary.
— Toby Spribille
To say that we’re all made of stardust is true, but to say we’re sovereign in our Homo sapiens-ness is false. An original thinker becomes so through acquisition of other thoughts, horizontal intake — often the likes of which are as distinct as fungi is from algae. Where the fungal thoughts that thrive in the dark fall short, the radiant algal thoughts bring in the life-giving light of the sun, before the spores scatter and this cognitive symbiosis spreads through many mediums, giving rise to other thoughts, in other brains. Originality aside, there is no creation without this symbiosis, the begging, borrowing and stealing of the brain, or the lichen. As far as describing what lichens actually are, the scientific community admittedly lacks the language to do so — not unlike the enigma of memory. This void in vocabulary is indicative of the way living things have been perceived in the Modern Age, a ‘this’ or ‘that’ with some ancillary details, kind of view. Just as a writer cannot be broken down into a formulaic origin — a list of literary influences and predecessors, age and sex, drugs they might take, nationality, etc. — so lichen are a living paradox of many and One, not one or the other, literally, many and One.
For days afterward I find fragments lining my trouser pockets. I turn them (lichen) out, feeling like a human meteorite, and wonder how many will make a life in the unexpected places where they now find themselves.
— Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life
So the brain carries on like the lichen, attaching itself to rocky enclaves as surely as thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface, to the core of meteorites in space transit, a reef, or the bottom of the lightless sea, just beneath my fingertips… Binary thinking is as absurd as thinking that a series a multiple choice questions can solve the riddle of consciousness. And yet, as removed and quantitative as the scientific community may seem, they are nothing but human beings. Instruments are only as useful as the ones building and wielding them, even more importantly, the ones directing them, never mind the funding. The same goes for the brain, since it sort of functions with a director, instruments, ever-building memories and focuses, a pan-research and experimentation facility, in itself, like the lichen. Since we are unique organisms, symborgs, living with and through other organisms, our cognitive world is more like a symcog, since nothing would come to anything without the ‘things’ our minds absorb, horizontally and from above, those thoughts that far outnumber our own, as surely as they become One with the many that is the brain.