The Mycelium Principle – Why your Zettelkasten works like a fungal network

Mushrooms are among the most fascinating organisms on Earth.

Many people mistakenly believe that mushrooms are plants. However, they rule their own kingdom, that of the fungi.

Mushrooms are also much more than just the fruiting body that prominently pops up from the ground: The majority of their biomass is made up of what is called mycelium. By this, we mean the dense, filamentous structure that runs through the earth or other organic structures.

These filaments form a vast and complex network that, interestingly, has parallels to the network of a “Zettelkasten” (a card index system).

If you’re not familiar with the term ‘Zettelkasten,’ imagine a system for storing ideas, quotes, or insights on index cards. But instead of keeping these cards isolated in a drawer, you look for connections to already existing cards in your system. Over time, you build a dense network of thoughts and information. This works even better digitally than analogously!

What your Zettelkasten has in common with the mycelium of mushrooms

Like the mycelium, which forms an extensive and complex network below the earth’s surface, the network of a Zettelkasten connects notes and ideas in a network.

The Zettelkasten grows organically when new knowledge is added. Just as the growth of the mycelium is stimulated by nutrient sources in the soil, the growth of your Zettelkasten is stimulated by sources of knowledge.

Depending on the availability and need for nutrients, the mycelium branches out; it can also completely withdraw from nutrient-poor areas. Similarly, the content of the Zettelkasten grows organically, following the interests, studies, or insights of the user. It can branch in different directions, depending on which topics or questions are currently relevant.

In the mycelium, all parts are interconnected. A nutrient source in one place can influence growth in another. Through the mycelium, water, nutrients, and other resources are distributed throughout the entire organism, much like the roots and vascular system of a plant.

Similarly, in the Zettelkasten, all ideas are interconnected, so that a thought or insight in one place can influence entirely different areas of the network.

Mycelium can adapt to different conditions, and if one part is damaged, the network can still function.

Similarly, the Zettelkasten, with its networked structure, offers a robust and adaptable method for knowledge storage: If a note or concept becomes outdated, it can easily be updated or replaced by new insights without disrupting the entire system.

From time to time, the mycelium produces a visible fruiting body – the mushroom we see on the surface.

This can be compared to scientific papers, essays, and books that arise from the note network of the Zettelkasten.

The mushroom spores of the fruiting body are widely spread and can grow new mycelium in new places, just as the shared ideas from the Zettelkasten can be spread and reused by other people in a different context.

Conclusion: Mushroom networks are just as fascinating as knowledge networks

Mushrooms are the epitome of a decentralized organism, just as the Zettelkasten is the epitome of decentralized knowledge management. Mycelium is a natural system that, despite its complexity, is robust and adaptable. It grows organically, linking resources and information, and adapts to changing conditions.

Similarly, the Zettelkasten is a powerful tool for organizing and nurturing knowledge in a networked format. Just as the mycelium moves through the soil to find and share nutrients, the Zettelkasten connects thoughts, ideas, and information in a constantly growing network of understanding.