Introduction to Memes


The meme, which rhymes with ‘beam’, is the basic building block of culture in the same way the gene is the basic building block of life…. Memes are not only the building blocks of culture on a large scale – making up languages, religions – but also on a small scale: memes are the building blocks of your mind, the programming of your mental “computer”.

The meme is the basic unit of cultural transmission, or imitation…. Some memes spread directly from mind to mind…. Some spread more indirectly. A mother, not wanting to perpetuate the unhappy experience she had when her mother raised her with iron discipline, may react by raising her daughter with a very loose rein – a meme for the opposite child-rearing strategy. The granddaughter, in turn, may react to her unhappy experience of the loose rein by resuming grandmother’s iron hand. The iron-hand meme got transmitted indirectly….

Memes spread by influencing people’s minds, and so their behaviour, so that eventually someone gets infected with the meme. If a meme is in your mind, it can greatly or subtly influence your behaviour…

Memes can be divided into three classes:

• Distinctions, knives used to slice up reality;
• Strategies, beliefs about which causes will produce which effects;
• And associations, out attitudes about everything in life.

Each class of meme works to program you in a different way…

Distinction memes:
Distinction memes are ways of carving up the world by categorizing or labelling things…. The distinction-memes you are programmed with form a perceptual filter on the immediate present world around you. People cannot take in any more than a small fraction of all the information that hits their sensory organs every second. What information do we take in, and what do we filter out? Our unconscious mind decided for us, based on the distinction-memes we are programmed with. They actually make reality look different to you.

Strategy memes:
Another kind of meme is a strategy, a kind of floating rule-of-thumb that tells you what to do when you come across an applicable situation in order to achieve some desired result. For example, if you drive, you have a set of distinction-memes having to do with driving: traffic lights, speed limits, lane markers, and so on. You also have a set of strategy-memes giving you your driving behaviour:
• When you come to a red light and want to turn right, stop and then turn.
• When you get to a traffic circle, go counterclockwise.

The effect of all these strategy-memes is to avoid accidents, get where you’re going, or avoid being ticketed. …

Since the future is unpredictable, strategy-memes are never cast-in-stone Truths about how to behave. All strategy-memes are approximation, based on the idea that if you behave in a certain way, you’ll have a certain effect on the world. When you are programmed with a strategy meme, you unconsciously believe behaving a certain way is likely to produce a certain effect. That behaviour may trigger a chain of events that results in spreading the strategy-meme to another mind….

A third kind of meme is an association. Associations link two or more memes in your mind. When you are programmed with an association-meme, the presence of one thing triggers a thought or feeling about something else. This causes a change in your behaviour, which can ultimately spread the meme to another mind. Advertising often works on such associations.

The price of civilization is compromise. Without general agreement on millions of ideas, big and small, the incredibly complex society we have built would quickly disintegrate…

Slavery to memes does not stop at the national level. Any group of people who interact with each other is subject to peer pressure: the pressure on each individual to behave and think as the rest of the group does…

The evolution of ideas, culture, and society revolves around the selfish meme just as the evolution of species revolves around the selfish gene… Evolution naturally progressed to select for a diversity of clever, sneaky, and indirect ways of avoiding danger, finding food, and wooing mates…

The “wiring” of our brains evolved over millions of years. During that time, our environment changed very little, as we can verify by examining archaeological digs. It is only very, very recently in the time-scale of genetic evolution that our environment started to change so fast that day-to-day routines could change significantly within a single lifetime. To understand memes, we need to realize that our brain, which evolved to support our survival in a relatively unchanging world, remains essentially the same even though we have transformed our world many times over since we evolved to the point of consciousness…

There are certain tendencies you have because you are a product of nature. These tendencies support your survival and reproduction. They are things like your sex drive, your desire to breath, eat, sleep, etc. Scientists have a number of different names for different brands of these tendencies, but I’m just going to lump them all together under the term instinct. Unfortunately, human instincts evolved to support our survival a long time ago and didn’t take into account the kind of world we live in today. In modern times, those prehistoric instincts often don’t work any better than a deer’s instinct to freeze in the face of oncoming headlights. Fortunately, we have conscious minds we can use to override our instincts…. Remember: instincts are just instincts; tendencies are just tendencies. Knowing what they are gives you more power to consciously override them if you choose.

It is important to understand human instincts, because they have a great influence on the evolution of memes. The memes that appeal to people’s instincts are more likely to replicate and spread throughout the population than the memes that don’t.”

from Virus of the mind: the new science of the meme
by Richard Brodie

* * *

With this brief introduction on memes and memetics I would like to open a new ‘chapter’ on my blog for listing cultural memes surrounding us in present time. Watch this space and feel free to add the memes you spot to this list 🙂

memeFrom On Memes


12 thoughts on “Introduction to Memes

  1. […] provide an interesting example of inter-personal strategy memes unconsciously played by people. In ‘Games People Play’, Berne defined games […]

  2. […] done some further research on that and discovered a few interesting memes (or myths) those men might have had in their […]

  3. […] centuries myths, legends, fairy tales and literary stories have been used for spreading positive memes and developing good moral values. Such literary works have always been judged by the fitness of its […]

  4. […] Today many of these social categories and stereotypes are propagated by society, tradition, and culture. We see that all the time in politics (Republicans vs. Democrats), war (Palestine vs. Israel), sports (Mets vs. Yankees), and other aspects of our culture. Even though this mentality is not relevant in modern conditions and  creates unnecessary tension and antagonism between everyone, we are struggling with getting over this toxic meme. […]

  5. […] been widely misinterpreted over the years with the whole focus of the ‘open marriage’ meme shifting to non-monogamous sexual […]

  6. […] We live in a culture of unprecedented choice and often assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. Is that meme true? […]

  7. […] Today many of these social categories and stereotypes are propagated by society, tradition, and culture. We see that all the time in politics (Republicans vs. Democrats), war (Palestine vs. Israel), sports (Mets vs. Yankees), and other aspects of our culture. Even though this mentality is not relevant in modern conditions and  creates unnecessary tension and antagonism between everyone, we are struggling with getting over this toxic meme. […]

  8. […] presented in this post have one common theme: these cases are the product of certain beliefs (or memes) held in the society. The stories from Russia happened at the time, when surfs were not perceived […]

  9. […] sure you’ve seen this meme in lots of fairy tales. A dream of so many Cinderellas. Is life with princes so sweet and happy in […]

  10. evanb54 says:

    Love this! Thanks!! If memes cannot be avoided and it’s clear that they evolve over time, in individuals, in families and in cultures, then the question becomes; ‘what is THE most efficient and effective meme for any given context?’ This implies not only a familiarity with pre-modern and modern memes, but also an inner flexibility in our representation of them! This is one definition of “Maturity”.

    It becomes clear to me then that “Religion”, “Politics”, “The Media”, “Education”, “Advertising” (and so many more) are all; teachers for how to become and remain flexible in our meme utilization. I find it significant that the above “Meme-producing Entities” are often blind and deaf to the very fact that they do serve as models for a flexible introspection of memes.

  11. colinjkeats says:

    Reblogged this on Colin John Keats and commented:
    memes- new (to me) pointers of cultural change

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