Memes: biochemical feedback loops, not viral ads.

There is a lot of mildly conflicting information about memes. They have been categorised as everything from viral ideas (from folks in the marketing / advertising camp) to copied behaviour that spreads through a culture (the behaviourist / socio-anthropologist camp).

The basic idea is that genes do for biological evolution what memes do for cultural evolution. Beyond that, however, it gets vague and fluffy very quickly… unless you’re prepared to wade through Robert Aunger’s verbose yet far more rigorous analysis of what memes might actually be…

Aunger’s prose has a readability index of 2 – or at least it feels that way; the overly-intellectual approach makes it really hard to get to the meat of what he has to say about memes, but it’s still an amazing book (‘The Electric Meme’).

Anyhow. I am going to take unthinkable liberties and summarise my understanding of what he (and others) say about memes: it might save you a bit of time too.

  • It all starts with large brains, the kind that apes and humans have, on account of a sizable neocortex that quickly outgrew the regular brain stem during our evolutionary history.
  • With trillions of neurons and that much processing power, something akin to a phase transition happens: the brain becomes ‘solipsistic’: most of it’s time is spent processing it’s own signals (eg memories), not just signals coming in from the outside world. The brain spends a lot of time on jobs like ‘consolidating’ short-term memories to long term memory and so on.
  • Since memory is intangible, and exists as a distribution of states of neurons, a big brain manages it’s data by transferring the electrochemical ‘state’ of this cluster of neurons to that cluster of neurons over there.
  • These state changes are so transitory in nature (they happen in the order of milliseconds or less) that there is NO WAY a GENE could be involved in the transfer: genes have to be expressed – there would be no time to make the protein involved in that time frame.

Ok So let’s take stock. We have the transfer of electrochemical states of neurons within the brain. This is an act of copying and wherever information is copied, a replicator is never too far away. (Remember those old computer viruses that were ready to pounce whenever you copied something from a floppy disc?)

But hang on! The only replicators we know of in the brain are genes, and we’ve just said they can’t be expressed fast enough to operate at this scale! So what’s going on?

Well, it appears that certain configurations of neurons can get into attractor states – kinda like ‘sticky’ states that are easy to get into, but not so easy to get out of. Such a cluster of neurons could fire and cause another cluster of neurons elsewhere to adopt that same state. Effectively, that ‘sticky’ state has been duplicated within the brain. This replicable electrochemical state is what a meme actually is. So based on that, here’s the rest in a nutshell:

  • Memes ride on the backs of genes, because they use the stuff of genetic processes (i.e. neurons) to replicate themselves – in fact, they are sometimes seen as being in competition with genes.
  • Since memes can replicate themselves on a much shorter timescale – at the speed at which neurons fire, broadly speaking- they are more effective replicators than genes themselves, which only replicate during sexual reproduction.
  • Having spent ages quietly evolving in the brain, memes are supposed to have made the jump, through social signals (like the act of talking) or complex artifacts (cellphones, computers) from one brain to another.

It is this last point that gets the most (sensationalist) mileage in the media, but Aunger cautions that there is more to culture than memes alone: artifacts (especially technological and communicative artifacts) are in sort of evolutionary dance with memes: they physically embody the ideas that cause people to innovate, mimic, invent, re-design and try something new.

The point is that the transition from brain memetics to social memetics hasn’t been pinned down with any scientific rigour, but already everyone’s jumped on the bandwagon, with wild proclamations about ideas spreading like viruses and how marketing and brand managers can make use of memes to spread their ideas (and presumably, their wares).

So the next time you see the word ‘meme’ used carelessly in the media – beware; dig around a little and be one of the people to stop the vacuous ‘meta-meme’ from spreading any further and do your bit to understand them a little better.

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