From psychologist Hoye Leigh's Genes, Memes, Culture, and Mental Illness:
"Primitive memory formed by trial and error died with the organism. With the evolution of complex brains, however, memory in the form of brain codes acquired the ability to skip from one brain to another, first by imitation as a shortcut to trial and error, and later, with language, as knowledge and information. When memory achieved portability, it became memes, bits of replicating information."Meme: A Definition
Have you ever seen "meme" defined so precisely? In modern parlance, a meme is an image or short video with a snappy tagline. It's not the image or the tagline itself that makes it a meme. What makes a meme is that it can be directly inserted into various social contexts and make perfect sense. The perfect meme conveys information more portably and more accurately than having to explain something. In theory, we could carry on conversations with each other using just memes.
Bits of replicating information.
We've grown very accustomed to imagining memes as some new phenomenon. Usually, these memes are sassy, clever, and cynical -- Internet culture in nutshell. The following meme has gotten a lot of airplay in recent months:
The original clip (5:42) is hilarious. The meme's text makes you laugh because we've all been in that situation. But the frame itself makes the meme, and it transmits well because of what it communicates subliminally. We relate to it because everyone privately battles with their own darkness. So it doesn't matter what Kermit and Evil Kermit say specifically, we get it and we laugh (see the hundreds of renditions here).
Let's generalize the term meme and move it outside of the domain of the digital world. If a meme is a dense, repeatable, portable memory chunk, then much of our selves are determined by the memes we repeat like mantras.
A meme: a dog licking her pup repeatedly, or a cat snuggling behind another cat. According to psychologist Hoye Leigh, "the perception of licking by the pup results in memes, i.e., new neural connections and potentiation of existing ones that may represent, in homo sapiens terms, 'I am loved.'"
Here's a reference to that same meme appearing in cinema, in Barry Jenkins' incredible film Moonlight:
"I messed up baby. I fucked it all up, I know that. But yo’ heart ain’t gotta be black like mine, you hear me?I love you baby. I do, I love you Chiron. You ain’t gotta love me, lord knows I didn’t have love for you when you needed it, I know that.So you ain’t gotta love me but you gon’ know that I love you, you hear?"
Paula, Chiron's heroin addict mother, communicates to her son something she never did when he needed to hear it. In Chiron's life, the meme of "I am loved" never fully formed, and Chiron's decisions throughout the movie reflect the lack of this important life meme.
Memes are patterns of neural connections, according to Leigh, and they "affect other neural connections to result in neurotransmitter release and affect genes. The affected genes, in turn, affect the individual’s perceptual bias and interpretation of life experiences in the future, and thus stress vulnerability or resilience."
The memes we receive and the memes we repeat to ourselves and to others determine how we see ourselves and others. They determine if and how we: show affection, study, work, think, engage, converse, navigate, and handle emotions. Some memes are extremely sticky -- if you don't have them, chances are your kids won't either.
Culture: A Collection of Memes
Through this lens, memes aren't trivial. A meme carries with it not just visceral memories, but also expectations, biases, and values. So then imagine a stream of memes occurring all around us. This collection is what we're subconsciously pulling from to construct our personalities.
In our early years, family provides us with memes on what constitutes "life". But in the absence of (or supplemental to) family, whether by choice or by circumstance, we seek out memes in media, sports, art, books, urban spaces, quaint coffeeshops, and niche tribes. One could give this conglomerate source of influence a name: "culture".
We are shaped by the culture surrounding us insofar as how we assimilate to it, or conversely, how sharply we react to it.
In New York City, the prevailing meme is money: the city's culture is broadly defined by the tension between Midtown glitz-and-glam and its defiant bohemian starving-artist peripheries.
In San Francisco, the prevailing meme is glory: the city is a breeding ground for cultural spaces emanating conflicting "change the world" and "change your self" messages.
Some cities use intellectualism as a driving/reactionary force (Boston), while others use power (DC), masculinity, stoicism, religion, etc.
The community you occupy can play a huge role in how you perceive life and the subsequent decisions you make about it. That's because the community's capital-C Culture can often be a forcing function pushing you towards/away from certain values.
The people you run into, the media you consume, the food you eat, the transportation you take, the block you live on -- these all play significant roles in how your view of yourself morphs or stays the same. If you stay long enough, you then start contributing to this viscous stew of memes.
Reclaiming Your Meme-o-sphere in the Era of the Infinite Scroll
The more time I spend observing my own habits, the more I realize the importance of curating the types of memes I pay attention to.
If memes can dismantle old neural connections and replace them with new ones, then imagine their effect on our well-being. When a meme gets repeated, it decides to stick around. It grows to deepen its occupation of our inner value system. Which means that if we are sloppy about our consumption habits, our values are easily rattled and replaced without us even noticing it happening.
This is reminiscent of the first rule of getting in shape, which is to empty your apartment of bad snacks. It might sound funny, but in the realm of health, a pantry filled with unhealthy food is a meme telling you what it is okay to consume when you're hungry and don't have time to cook. Replace the candy with nuts and healthy fats, and you've solved your problem. The larger problem still remains ("Why do you crave snacks?"), but this solution prevents a bad meme from fully infiltrating your value system.
In the digital context, the bad snacks may be clickbait headlines -- CNN might buzz your phone with the latest provocative story. In the realm of knowledge, this digital pantry is a meme telling you that consuming headlines like this is healthy for your understanding of the world. Replace the CNN ticker with Farnam Street or The Skimm, and you've solved the problem. The larger problem still remains ("Why do you crave provocative information?"), but this solution, like the one above, prevents a bad meme from invading your value system.
Reclaim your meme-o-sphere. You are the product of the memes you keep and create. Whether they occur online or in your office or the company you keep or the apartment you live in, these memes deserve to be audited, reflected on, and reshaped. Then start producing memes for others to consume.