Memes……have you heard of them?
There is a whole field of Memetics (http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/memes.html) that studies memes and it is vast and complex.
By their definition they are something that is acting upon and within us all the time….. and yet I also find them elusive.
Here is some history and definition (drawn for the work of Susan Blackmore and other sources)
The term meme (it’s pronounced like dream or cream) was coined by Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As examples of memes he suggested “musical tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches”.
Memes are habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information that is copied from person to person. Memes, like genes, are replicators. That is, they are information that is copied with variation and selection. Because only some of the variants survive, memes (and hence human cultures) evolve. Memes are copied by imitation, teaching and other methods, and they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again.
The word “meme” has recently been included in the Oxford English Dictionary where it is defined as follows “meme (mi:m), n. Biol. (shortened from mimeme … that which is imitated, after GENE n.) “An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation”.
According to memetics, our minds and cultures are designed by natural selection (the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring) acting on memes, just as organisms are designed by natural selection acting on genes. A central question for memetics is therefore ‘why has this meme survived?’. Some succeed because they are genuinely useful to us, while others use a variety of tricks to get themselves copied. From the point of view of the “selfish memes” all that matters is replication, regardless of the effect on either us or our genes.
Some memes are almost entirely exploitative, or viral, in nature, including chain letters and e-mail viruses. These consist of a “copy-me” instruction backed up with threats and promises. Religions have a similar structure and this is why Dawkins refers to them as ‘viruses of the mind’. Many organized religions threaten hell and damnation, promise heaven or salvation, and insist that their followers pass on their beliefs to others. This ensures the survival of the memeplex. Other viral memes include alternative therapies that don’t work, and new age fads and cults. Relatively harmless memes include children’s games, urban legends and popular songs, all of which can spread like infections.
At the other end of the spectrum memes survive because of their value to us. The most valuable of memeplexes include all of the arts and sports, transport and communications systems, political and monetary systems, literature and science.
Memetics has been used to provide new explanations of human evolution, including theories of altruism, the origins of language and consciousness, and the evolution of the large human brain. The Internet can be seen as a vast realm of memes, growing rapidly by the process of memetic evolution and not under human control.
(All of this taken into consideration….the field of memetics is still a new science, with many critics, and many difficulties to be resolved.)
The curiosity for me is exploring where perhaps a meme ends and ‘I’ begin (or vice versa). It all gets a bit slippery and I am not sure there is ever an ‘I’ that simply stands by itself as each of us is a composite of experiences, influences and ideas (or memes).
But I believe that, with practice, we can begin to notice the influence of ideas, memes, conditioning and environment upon us. From there perhaps we can step back just enough to broaden perspective and find new choices available to each of us.
All of this leads me to continually explore the ways in which this dictates our behaviors, memories and stories as an individual but also as a society/community. Basically, the things that shape who we are. And simultaneously I am ever fascinated with this ability to expand our awareness, perspectives, ‘choices’ and possibilities.
Truly, all of this feels like a lifelong exploration to me as there seems to always be more layers of the self. Just as science continues to discover new dimensions and possibilities about our universe (and beyond)………..so it is with the inner universe of our mind & body complex. Like the universe I feel we are infinite and always expanding/contracting.
I think what makes it more tricky is that unlike the universe we are not unbiased or neutral. We have constructed our world with distinct parameters and social systems to ‘make sense’ and create ”order’ from what is infinite within and around us. These systems dictate how we measure ourselves, view the world and the concepts by which we live. And since this world is also filled with so much human diversity…. these measurements, views and concepts can both be helpful and harmful.
So much of what I explore in myself and through my life is how to simply reveal more layers (that are equal ‘truth’) in and around me. I am not content with looking through the same glasses my whole life with lenses (conditioning) that perhaps I know limit my vision. Who would want to keep wearing those glasses knowing it diminishes their sight?
All of the practice and ‘exercises’ help me to switch out the lenses and keep finding the ways my vision can grow and adjust.
(I remember hearing about a young friend who they didn’t know needed glasses. When he wore his new glasses for the first time he was talking about things he was ‘seeing’ that he had not been able to see before in his everyday environment. I am feeling a metaphor here.)
I hear people invoke the phrase ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’. If your sight seems perfectly acceptable by standards and it isn’t giving you obvious headaches……why change the lenses? Besides, it’s a hassle….right?
In fact, I had someone recently read my post about ‘Choice’ and say it sounded amazing but it is ‘asking a lot of people’ and that what I am suggesting is probably ‘too difficult’ for most.
I understand all of that.
Again, for me, there is truly no ‘right or wrong’ way of living or seeing the world (Although we each can have our own opinions). None of what I suggest is about ‘shoulds’ or ‘right’…..it is simply offering possibilities through awareness and curiosity. It is offering tools for how we might continue to meet (and perhaps adapt) to this ever evolving world of people, diversity and complexity. And to also invite new insight about ourselves previously ‘hidden’.
That is where it gets interesting for me. Not in maintaining how I see myself and the world…..but in allowing it to open and evolve.
That is when I feel potential unfolding.
Thanks for reading……….
(and if you are ever wondering why I put quotation marks around so many words it is because those words feel quite subjective and more like concepts than definitives. What I suggest is more exploration than ‘answer’ or definitions.)