Sunday, October 21, 2012

Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme

Book Review: Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme by Richard Brodie
Kindle Edition – (1st published in 1995)

This is a neat and fun book, provocative and fascinating as well. The author is a former Microsoft genius who wrote the first MS Word. Here he can be a bit annoying and over-dramatic at times acting as if conditioning/programming is a newly discovered phenomenon though he does exemplify that there are significant applications of memetics that can be utilized. Memetics is a neat way of looking at conditioning and the propagation of ideas.

Brodie sees memetics as a theory that unifies biology, psychology, and cognitive science. He also suggests that memetics reveals that much of our thought-stuff is culturally programmed rather than self-generated. He describes memetics as a paradigm shift in the way we think about mind science (and this is from 1995 –before the ‘paradigm shift’ idea became an overused meme).

Memes are described as the building blocks of culture and as the building blocks of mind – the programming of the mental computer. Viruses are known from biology, from computing, and as the book shows – from the mind as well. The interplay of memes as mind viruses in the context of evolution and evolutionary psychology is the keynote of the book. Evolutionary psychology deals with the mental biases and mechanisms that evolved to support survival and reproduction, often in the form of psychological switches. Brodie suggests that memetics gives us a key to directing our own evolution, at least psychologically. Since mind viruses are transmitted through communication, they are supported by, or perhaps a consequence of, our freedom of speech. Nowadays with various media the mind viruses can infect us in more technological ways than in the past simply through being replicated and shared by others. Most of us succumb to various mind viruses in one way or another. Another key feature of the book is how to recognize mind virus propagation (which can be involuntary and unintentional) and how to de-program from it. The coercion of commerce via advertising is the most obvious and ubiquitous application of mind viruses with which we are familiar. A key feature of memetics is the spreading of ideas. An example of a useful application of memetics would be spreading ideas that are beneficial to society and the humans that make it up.

Brodie suggests that the incessant pull of competing mind viruses is a major cause of stress but I don’t think I buy that one. Throughout the book he suggests that we are under the power of mind viruses to a greater extent than seems reasonable to me, though people of low intelligence may be more susceptible I suppose. The forces of conditioning and cultural programming have always been around so I think he overdoes it a bit.

In seeing memetics as a ‘new paradigm’ idea, he goes through the stages of reaction to new ideas. These are: 1) complacency/marginalization – this often happens early in the propagation of a new idea. 2) ridicule – usually the result of the prevailing paradigm  being threatened. 3) criticism – a further stage of responding to the threat. 4) acceptance – after enough people embrace the new idea it becomes intellectually and psychologically accepted. As the author points out – the new science of memetics is itself a meme – a way of looking at things: a model, an idea, a concept.

Through a description of a conversation with his Microsoft colleagues, Brodie sort of defines a meme as a chunk of information that gets imitated. He describes the meme as the key to human behavior, though I think he overemphasizes the ultimate importance of memetics a bit. Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene’ first coined the term ‘meme’. Brodie notes that in the past one looked at culture through the lens of society or the individual but now one may view it through the lens of the meme. Memetics is simply how memes “interact, replicate, and evolve.” Memetics mirrors genetics as a sort of genetics of the mind. A meme is defined as “the basic unit of cultural transmission, or imitation.” Like genes, memes get passed on. They either survive or perish in the cultural sense. Psychologist Henry Plotkin defines the meme as “the unit of cultural heredity analogous to the gene. It is the internal representation of knowledge.” As a computer analogy memes can be seen as the (psychological) software component while genes can be seen as the (biological) hardware component. Brodie states that: “…memes are to a human’s behavior what genes are to our bodies: internal representations of knowledge that result in outward effects on the world.” Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennet defines a meme as “… the kind of complex idea that forms itself into a distinct memorable unit. It is spread by vehicles that are physical manifestations of the meme.” An example of a meme-carrying vehicle would be TV advertising. Brodie then gives his own definition of a meme based on Dawkins’ definition: “A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds.” He says a meme about memes is a metameme – so that the study of memes is a metameme. He points out that memetics is a model of mind and behavior, just as there are biological and psychological models, and does not replace or invalidate them. It is just another way of looking at things. All of our labels for things are memes rather than truth.

Memes may be beneficial or detrimental but successful memes are those that are good at spreading, whether for good or ill. Brodie defines a mind virus as something that infects people with memes and those people infect others – basically a spreadable idea or chunk of cultural association. Forces affecting our behavior can generally be divided into instincts (genetic programming that is often outdated) and mental programming.

Brodie divides memes into three general classes: 1) distinction-memes - we label things by breaking them into parts and pieces. We name things to distinguish them from other things. We use concepts (memes) to distinguish things and ideas. Our programming depends on how we label/name/categorize/distinguish things. Advertisers seek to pass on distinction-memes that result in a preference for their product. Money is a distinction-meme where we assign value to coins and pieces of paper. 2) strategy-memes – these are basically just ‘rules-of thumb’. Beliefs about cause and effect of behaviors support strategy-memes. Successful strategies are very often passed along and further replicated. 3) association-memes – these are memes that link other memes/concepts together. Our attitudes and opinions are often a result of association-memes. Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment with his dog is an example. These are our inventories of basic stimulus-response triggers. The three types of memes described above make up the bulk of how we learn. Peer pressure and in-group seeking are ways that help replicate programming. Even animals can distinguish, strategize, and associate and for us this becomes the basis of learning and communication.

Expectations and “self-fulfilling prophecies” are one way our memes affect us, thus we say that we can be programmed for success or failure. Distinction-memes may affect how we perceive reality, since they can act as ‘perceptual filters’ allowing us to notice things that we recognize because we have labels for them. This may be a factor in ‘synchronicity’ as well. Advertisers want us to notice things so they play on our memetic programming so that we will notice and associate pleasant memes with their products. He makes the point (that many of us already know) that truth depends on context and by getting caught up in truth/dogma/fixed beliefs we are more easily controlled.  Our memetic programming can influence our predictability.

Conceptually, viruses occur in three different venues: biology, computers, and the mind (as memes). There are differences but the general behavior is the same. Both biological and computer viruses are hard to cure. Mind viruses can be either detrimental or beneficial and the process of ‘curing’ would presumably involve de-conditioning regarding the detrimental ones and re-conditioning with beneficial ones – and I might add here that keeping an open-mind and less rigid beliefs may be a way to keep from being too conditioned in any way, but more flexible. Biological viruses commandeer the copying equipment of cells in order to copy the virus. Replication is a key feature of viruses of all kinds. Brodie uses the word virus “to refer to things that penetrate, copy, possibly issue instructions, and spread.” This need not be something alive.

Brodie distinguishes between cultural viruses that arise spontaneously and designer viruses that are crafted by humans. He suggests viewing culture as a ‘meme-pool’. Genes and memes are both excellent replicators, able to continue to exist and able to be organized enough to overcome the randomizing effects of entropy. He describes evolution as a creative and complexifying force and entropy as a destructive a simplifying force. Survival of the fittest essentially means survival of that which is best at replicating. The selfish gene self-replicates. Fitness really refers to the likelihood of being copied. He prefers the phrase ‘abundance of the fittest.’ Genes are bundles of DNA that function mainly to replicate. This is often referred to as our genetic programming. Brodie discusses evolution vs. engineering and concludes that there was no designing involved. He also mentions the engineer’s kluge, which refers to a part not particularly suited to its purpose. This is used in terms of old and outdated programs that organisms get stuck with. He also attributes junk DNA as kluging but more recent evidence suggests other uses for much of it – such as a complex network of regulatory switches. Bundles of DNA are selected and copied so that the organism can survive and reproduce (copy itself).

“Once our brains evolved to the point where we could receive, store, modify, and communicate ideas, there suddenly appeared a new environment that had the two characteristics needed for evolution: copying and innovating.”

Memetic evolution occurs much faster than genetic evolution. A concept of a ‘selfish meme’ that exists primarily as a means to copy itself is just as useful as the selfish gene concept. In a sense, memes are concerned with the evolution of ideas, culture, and society. Like genes, memes survive because they are good at spreading.  

Memetics is really a function of conceptualization and language. Information about food, danger, and sex is important to survival and so is the ability to communicate that information. We preferentially pay attention to food, danger, and sex for this reason. In terms of memes these are our primary buttons that can be manipulated. Memes involving them spread the fastest. He gives the five ‘original’ memes as: 1) crisis – spread fear = save lives 2) mission – communicating a mission such as – build a shelter, fight an enemy, find food – has survival value 3) problem – identifying a problem as a problem such as – lack of food, competition for mates – allowed better abilities to survive 4) danger – knowledge of predators and poisons enhanced survivability 5) opportunity – ability to take advantage of opportunities for food and mating aids evolution. The buttons for danger, food, and sex are the feelings anger, fear (fight or flight), hunger, and lust are our primary instinctual buttons – things we are hard-wired to pay attention to. Next, he gives five second-order buttons/drives: 1) belonging – these memes offer an evolutionary advantage through such things as safety in numbers, economies of scale, and potential for more mates. 2) distinguishing yourself – can lead to more food and more mates 3) caring -  ensures survivability of offspring and group mates 4) approval – ability to be approved by the group (and oneself) confers advantages 5) obeying authority – resisting authority could get on killed.

In addition to the survival memes he mentions the proliferation of six meme-spreading memes due to the ‘replicate and spread’ functions of memes: 1) tradition – a strategy-meme to continue what was done in the past. It will likely be popular and known so easier to replicate. Convenient to repeat and spread 2) evangelism – this is the main ‘spread this meme’ meme. It is often combined with a mission meme 3) faith – blind belief is resistant to attack especially if combined with the evangelism meme 4) skepticism – the opposite of faith but with a similar effect on the mind. A skeptic can be just as resistant to new ideas as one who is faithful to another idea 5) familiarity – plays on pre-existing distinction-memes so they are more recognizable 6) making sense – simpler to understand = simpler to pass on.

The next section is a primer of sex through the lens of evolutionary psychology. Brodie notes that memetic tendencies are guided by genetic tendencies which evolved around sex.  He gives an odd evolutionary explanation for hypocrisy as outwardly following sexual mores and prohibitions while secretly engaging in mating when an opportunity arises thereby passing on genes when the competition is held back by the mores – so spreading antisex memes and secretly and selfishly ignoring them may be a mating strategy! He notes that “access to sex is the driving force behind many aspects of culture.” He gives sexual memes as: 1) power – powerful men tend to get more sexual opportunity 2) dominance – men being higher in the hierarchy could access sex without a fight 3) window of opportunity – seizing opportunities improved reproductive fitness among men but among women patience achieved the same effect. Advertising that wants us to “act now” exploits this meme 4) security – women preferred opportunities for security as it led to survival of offspring 5) commitment - women prefer commitment since it fosters a stable upbringing of offspring while males tended to evolve to seek multiple mates – this may be exploited as “brand loyalty” memes 6) investment – women pay attention to men who invest their own attention in the woman (and offspring) while a woman’s investment as a mother is a given. Our sex-drive is about reproduction but since then we figured out that we can have sex without having babies. Those that reproduce will make future babies and pass on their genetic tendencies. Religions that forbid birth control will pass on more genes. Are those that do not reproduce working to make future life better for the offspring of those who do? Good question. 

Forbidden behaviors may play on our attention to danger. Successful reproduction requires safety and fearing dangers has a tendency to support safety. But fears change. Some are more rational than others. Brodie states that:

“Human fear is generated by “hardware” instincts viewing life through memetic “software” programming.”

Showing of fear as a way of communicating danger is an evolutionary adaptation. Over-reaction to fear can be counter-productive so the less drastic ‘anxiety’ developed as a readying mechanism. Fearing for our kin became important as well and Brodie sees this as the roots of altruism. It does seem logical that altruism developed from kin altruism and parental instincts. He lists some button-pushing memes related to altruism: 1) helping children – this is instinctual and much manipulated 2) birds of a feather – the idea of looking out for clan-mates 3) racism – suspicion and disdain of ‘other’, usually a genetic other 4) elitism – the idea that feeling one deserves more than others will lead to better survivability.

Regarding the psychology of gambling Brodie lists some gambler’s instincts that are often exploited as memes: 1) overvaluing a longshot – he suggests that this urge is based on low-risk high-reward activity such as searching for food though in gambling the odds are abysmal 2) cheap insurance – another low-risk high-reward thing in pre-historic life (example – camouflaging one’s cave entrance) but statistically poor in gambling, yet it remains intuitively appealing and much exploited 3) playing the streaks – attributing predictability to events that are really random 4) being stingy when you’re down, generous when you’re up – conserving during scarcity and lavishing during abundance is not statistically superior 5) playing a hunch – new strategies and creative approaches are only occasionally successful. Memes tend to exploit all these tendencies.

Urban legends and erroneous ‘common wisdom’ is another interesting topic group. These types of scams and hoaxes seem to be hard to kill off. The popularity of superstitions can also be attributed to the ‘cheap insurance’ meme where heeding them is protective. Humans tend to heed and spread superstitions so they are common memes. Most of these revolve around fear exploitation.

Next he goes through three common ways we are infected with memes: 1) conditioning – programming by repetition. This is simply learning through memorization, whether self-induced or pushed on us. Distinction-memes are developed this way as are things we notice. In advertising conditioning often takes the form of association-memes. Operant conditioning utilizes strategy-memes that are tied to reward and punishment 2) cognitive dissonance – he describes this as creating high pressure and resolving it and sees it as the m.o. of high-pressure sales techniques. Theses memes tend to create conflict with previous memes such as caution-memes. Creating the conflict makes it beg to be resolved which is what the new meme does. The choice is to “buy in” or “bail out” and many people buy irrationally in this manner. Other examples of exploitation of cognitive dissonance include fraternity hazings, bootcamp, and some religious or spiritual disciplines. These involve demonstrations of loyalty through tests. This is how prisoners of war have been programmed to be obedient to their captors/torturers. Strategic reward-withholding in operant conditioning creates this cognitive dissonance and may result in stronger bonds, stronger memes, and stronger programming. 3) Trojan horses – this is hooking one with a strong meme and then inserting other memes to infect one with. Using sex, danger, crises, and helping children to sell things is an example. Politicians also use bundling techniques like this. It is a matter of the questionable riding on the acceptable. Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) emphasizes these techniques. The NLP technique of ‘anchoring and embedding ’ or ‘framing with gestures’ is a similar technique. Salespeople influence behavior through such means. Salespeople will also rely on creating rapport – ie. trying to be your buddy and utilize the NLP technique of ‘mirroring’ which means imitating one’s gestures. Con artists play ‘confidence games’ where they appear to trust you and induce you to reciprocate that apparent trust. The goal is to bypass your skepticism.

Interestingly he points out that the idea that there is a right way to spell words is just a cultural meme. I suppose the same could be said for pronunciation. These are agreed upon conventions to enhance communication rather than truth. He says this is part of the ‘be consistent’ meme that is often co-opted for exploitation.

Evangelism, ie. intentionally ‘spreading the word’, is a key way memes are passed out.  Cultural viruses are the ones that evolve on their own and become self-perpetuating while designer viruses are intentionally propagated according to Brodie’s definition. Advertisers and TV execs design viruses to push our buttons, particularly the danger, food, and sex buttons but some of the others mentioned as well. Here is an interesting observation relevant to today’s social networking:

“Cynics perennially ask why life and culture, and television in particular {I add facebook here}, seem to be filling up with valueless and demeaning junk rather than artistic and thoughtful content. The answer is, of course, that the valueless and demeaning junk is a better replicator.”

Bias and sensationalism in journalism and media is a way to get attention and ratings. Perhaps this is why headlines are often misleading – they draw us in so that we will read the story. Of course, there is the op-ed section set aside for biased views but most everyone has biases. Simply having a bias tends to urge one to want to spread it. The media is biased toward making newsworthy news – news that pushes our buttons. Media also has a bias toward the offbeat and unusual. News can spread mass fear by pushing our danger buttons. Nowadays we have news and media addiction due to the desire to interact with these button-pushing memes that excite.

Brodie provides an interesting take on conspiracy theories. He says they derive from our desire to make sense of things. People tend to project conscious intent onto things that developed without it and spread simply because they have spreadable memes.

He also mentions “panhandling” strategies as meme-intensive. ‘Be aggressive’, hold a sign saying “will work for food”, or beg with children or animals – have been successful strategies. Those ‘professional beggars’ who can make a living out of it pretty much keep out the people that really need help but are not skilled at begging. Brodie also tears into the memetics of government, politics, and the black market. Lobbyists transmit memes to legislators through repetition. Legislators (and perhaps most people) have more of a tendency to listen to those that contribute to their success. Voter appeal = having good memes.

Religion can utilize the ‘cheap insurance’ button. Dogma as truth is big problem around the world. Brodie suggests that religion evolved out of our need for problem-solving. As we were able to solve some of our issues with danger, food, and sex, other questions arose – metaphysical questions. These more difficult questions led to early humans venturing guesses about them. Interestingly, he sees most religion as a cultural virus that evolved without conscious intent due to the development of more effective memes, ie. spreadable dogmas. The one True meme plays on our problem-solving tendencies to solve a problem absolutely. He lists a group of memes often exploited by religion: tradition – this is replicability at its finest, a very powerful meme in religion, literalism, beliefs, and systems of thought. 2) heresy – this is the flip-side of tradition, a distinction-meme that then leads to associate-memes of the consequences of heresy. 3) evangelism – this is a meme that tends to make the religion successful simply because it is spreadable 4) making sense – things that make sense are easy to pass on. Ideas that are stated simply and clearly make more sense. 5) repetition – rituals are full of repetition which acclimates us to the worldview and makes us comfortable with it. 6) security – religions exploit fear. False enemies abound. God will protect you. 7) crisis – cults utilize this imminent danger meme most effectively. 8) food – feasts and even fasts can attract adherents. 9) sex – long-exploited by religions as a control mechanism. 9) problem – exploited by the more spiritual (less religious) sects like Zen and Taoism where the problem-solving mechanism is worked through a lifetime of practice 10) dominance – the lure of hierarchy in levels and degrees pulls some people in. This is true of religions, fraternal orders, occultism, and self-help schemes. 11) belonging – people like to belong to a group, an exploitable thing. Religions give people comfort and a feeling of purpose in their lives. Brodie calls this ‘having a purpose’ meme of the self-fulfilling prophecy type. Of course, this is at a cost to their rationalism and this tends to pain the atheists and agnostics who have to tolerate them. Faith is a trade-off. People sell their souls to God, who might just be the Devil in disguise! Just a thought! But faith and common belief unites people in the political and societal sense so there have been benefits as well.

In the section about designer viruses he predicts (in 1995) that the bulk of our culture will be composed of designer viruses. I don’t think that this has happened, at least for me but perhaps they have made some headway. With things like facebook we are passing memes constantly. With this bombardment of memes I am guessing that some people are getting more infectable and others less infectable. I do think the overall effect will be that we will become less infectable – at least with the more obvious ruses. However, the gullibility of humans can sometimes be baffling. He does mention increasing competition in the “mind war” and that does seem to be happening. He goes through profit-motivated viruses like Ponzi schemes, pyramid schemes, and multi-level marketing. In describing power-viruses he uses the example of a cult, where two of the most important memes are: commitment to mission and consequences of leaving. When these two conditions are combined with evangelism people can control others (who are inclined to be controlled). He shows that mega-corporations also employ these strategies albeit on a lesser scale. Things like a “mission statement” give employees something to hold onto which is usually not a bad thing. Others things referred to as ‘golden handcuffs’ usually in the form of stock-options available through time are designed to keep people from leaving. Cognitive dissonance in the form of “initiation ordeals” may also be used by corporations, though again on a lesser scale than fraternity hazings and military ordeals. Paying ones dues on low end of the totem pole as they say, may be a form of this.

There is a section about – disinfection – or de-programming. He gives what he describes as two ethical question: “What memes should I program myself with?” and “What memes should I spread?” I think these questions are rather philosophical as well. People do like to have a purpose, a will, a destiny of sorts to follow or practice. Brodie describes Zen as a method of de-virusing, which it can well be. De-condition is a technique in psychology as well as in various esoteric and spiritual traditions. I think that contemplative and introspective practices in general teach people to pay attention to there programming or as I used to like to say it – “pay attention to what you pay attention to.”

Brodie mentions an idea, interesting but speculative – the Learning Pyramid – where one outgrows one’s old belief system and moves up to the next level toward the apex. He describes Level 1 as genetic programming and Level 2 as knowledge that allows us to control and manipulate some of that programming. He describes Level 3 dealing with one’s personal programming and purpose – the description sounds a bit like Crowley’s notion of “finding and doing your True Will”. Regarding what memes to spread may also have to do with one’s purpose. Regarding the education of children – he refers to our education system as one where copying memes is emphasized. Rather than telling children what to think one might emphasize letting them thing for themselves. We have done this with our “unschooled” son who is now in college. How children are programmed is an important issue and one not easily solved as every cultural variation wants to pass on their memes. Personally I think it is of vast importance that keeping an open mind be emphasized.

Nice bibliography at the end split into subjects.




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