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mattbrowne's avatar

What exactly is the neuroscientific basis for memes and memeplexes?

Asked by mattbrowne (31595points) February 25th, 2010

A meme is a replicating entity subject to differential survival in cultural terms. Some view it as a mental information pattern or simply a replicating bit of data. The transmission of memes from one mind to another occurs through writing, speech, gestures, symbols, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Memes are supposed to respond to selective pressures. Memeplexes are thought to be groups of memes that are often found present in the same individual. There are plenty of definitions available on the web.

How can science prove the existence of memes? To me the best way would be to identify distinct neurobiological patterns in human brains. After all memory consists of neurons and their connections with particular synaptic strengths. As an example, atheism is a memeplex. We know what it is and we support it or not. Even the support must be stored in our brains somewhere. If we’re really passionate about it, we might hope others will support the idea as well. Same for religions. Missionaries even try to fuel replication, while others might prefer to lead by example. Now where are the memes exactly? How can we make them visible?

Let’s use Atheist One as our first test subject. Suppose in the year 2020 we are able to obtain fMRI scans with far superior resolution and we store the brain scan of Atheist One in a large database. Then we use Agnostic One as our second test subject and take her scan too. She has never really thought about God or religions on a deeper level, but at some point in her life this is beginning to change when she falls in love with Atheist One. A year later Agnostic One becomes Atheist Two. Almost everything what Atheist One told her makes total sense. We then obtain a second scan of the woman’s brain who is now known as Atheist Two. Over the years the couple meets a lot of indifferent people and many of them become atheists as well. Replication at its finest. Eventually three of their five children turn out devout atheists when they reach adulthood. Curiously enough one of them becomes a Christian. We keep taking brain scans and continue to compare all of them hunting for the manifestation of memes.

Now here comes the key question. Science proved the existence of bacteria, viruses as well as individual genes. Sequencing a whole genome is a piece of cake in the year 2020. Froogle will offer you the best deals. When people catch a common cold we can see copies of the very same virus. When babies are born we see physical copies of their parents’ genes. Since the idea of memes is based on the concept of genes, we should expect clear evidence of the replication. Will we be able to single out memeplexes or even individual memes in the high-resolution brain scans? Will the meme hypothesis become a widely accepted theory? If not, will memes remain a speculative model with no scientific basis?

What’s your take on memes?

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18 Answers

Fyrius's avatar

I wouldn’t recommend a neurological approach to memes. A cognitive point of view would be more helpful.
Would you try to prove the existence of Windows by taking a hard drive apart and studying it? It’d be more helpful to stick it into a computer and look at what the monitor shows.

It’s perfectly possible to prove the existence of information in someone’s head without using brain scans. The field of linguistics has long since been using simple mass inquiry as a source of information on the behaviour of languages (which are memeplexes too).

Shuttle128's avatar

The problem with this approach is that every brain stores information differently. Simple small deviations early on will alter the final neural connections quite a bit. The meme, even if containing the same information, can be represented in countless ways. The study might show a range of possible representations within the brain, but none will be the same.

In memetics the medium that the information is stored on has different encoding procedures in every person. Memes may be easy to find in language and writing because we have a single systematic way of representing them. We simply cannot decode the individual’s encoding procedures and assume this is the same for all people. Yes the same information is represented; however, this information will be represented differently in each mind. Evidence of replication can be found, as @Fyrius said, simply by asking a person.

Trillian's avatar

@mattbrowne It seems like the replication itself would be impossible simply due to the ambiguity of language. You can tell the same piece of information to two different people at the same time and they will still process, encode, and store it slightly or vastly differently from each other because they each have a different lens of perception.
That is, if I’m understanding your definition as being exact bits of information.
Language itself is fluid and ambiguous and even though you and I look at a dictionary definition we will still each have different perceptions of the meaning of a word.
I think that until we have actual mind-to-mind communication that completely bypasses speech, the cognitive approach may not be the right answer either.

mattbrowne's avatar

Well, visionaries like Ray Kurzweil predict that scientists will be able to completely reverse engineer the human brain and even be able to create mechanical copies of it. Now a 2020 fMRI scan wouldn’t go that far, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that neuroscientists will find refined structures compared to today. @Trillian – I think memes are not just a sequence of words. The support of a cultural unit must be stored in the brain somehow. @Fyrius – Corroborating a cognitive point of view using neurobiology would make the case for memes even stronger. Critics of memetics would have to reconsider their views.

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s studies the relationship between faith and the brain. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe — the area that directs the mind’s focus — is especially active while the amygdala — the area linked to fear reactions — is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. See

If he can see the new “muscles”, why shouldn’t future scientists see the physiological representation of memes?

Trillian's avatar

@mattbrowne Keep telling me what’s on your mind. I love reading your posts and questions, as I always learn something new that I would not have studied on my own!
I’m probably not even qualified to have any conversations with you, so never think that I pose questions or ideas to you from a “Boy are you wrong” standpoint. I can only ask from where my logic (such as it is) leads me. I’ll think: “Hmm, so if this, then…that?” I appreciate that you never belittle me when you answer my questions and guesses.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Trillian – Thanks! Well, in terms of neurobiology I’m just an educated layman, but I love the science behind it. And I love to speculate about the future, whether it’s 2020 or 2040 or 2060. Science fiction is after all a controlled way to think and dream about the future. And our speculation shouldn’t be limited to space travel. What if neuroscientists could prove the existence of memes? I just think it’s a question worth exploring. And if they did, how would they be able to do it?

Qingu's avatar

I skimmed the question but… I think you are overthinking this a bit, @mattbrowne.

A meme is simply a sub-type of a broader category: learned behavior. A monkey can look at what another monkey is doing, and copy it. We’ve seen this in many species.

Notably, a chimp can look at another chimp biting down a twig, and using it to dig out termites, and copy it. Some chimps can copy even more complex tool-use (for example, a five-part honey-wasp gathering tool set).

With primates, we are talking about behavior patterns. I highly doubt there is a genetic pattern or even a neural pattern that corresponds one-to-one with a behavior pattern (i.e. when you brush your teeth your brain’s neurons don’t fire in a “brush teeth” pattern).

But, if behavior patterns can replicate similar to genetic patterns, then you start getting evolution and a sort of ecology. Or, specifically, a “culture.” I understand “memes” in this context—some are more abstract than others, and in humans the ability to copy abstract behavior (like language and its associated semantic meanings) has conferred huge evolutionary advantage.

I also understand what we call “Technology” as, simply, a sort of crystalized meme/learned behavior. A chimp’s spear tool is a crystalized form of the pattern of learned behavior that gave rise to it. Somewhat similar to a phenotype “crystalizing” the underlying genotype pattern.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – Yes, perhaps. You see, more than 99% of all religions ever invented did not survive. Only a few did, and of course new ones arise all the time. I think for long-term successful replication there must be more going on in our brain than the mere copying learned behavior. Daniel Dennett talks about reverse engineering our surviving religions to find out what made them so successful. There must be elements of passion and intensity in addition to learning the behavior patterns of rituals. I really think when someone becomes deeply religious something special is going on in the brain. The same for passionate atheists or whatever followers of whatever worldviews. I just think the case for memes becomes stronger if several independent sciences confirm their existence. This is what makes evolution so special. You got everything from radiometric dating to plate tectonics to comparative genomics. It all fits together.

Shuttle128's avatar

I think what Qingu might be getting at is that learned behavior and learned concepts are stored in the same way in the brain. I might go as far as to say that the tool making behavior of apes would be considered a meme. I do believe the information is stored in a semi-concrete way within the brain, I just don’t think that the codification of it within the brain is standardized.

Trillian brought up a very good point about interpretation. Each person will interpret memes differently based on their previous experience. When I encountered information theory for the first time I had a different background of knowledge from someone else who encountered it with other background knowledge. Because of this difference I will interpret this meme differently than the other person and incorporate this interpretation into my worldview, not the pure meme.

Truthfully a meme is simply an abstraction of overarching principles contained within many differing viewpoints. You might say that a meme is the platonic Form of a certain idea except that it is fundamentally changed throughout its lifetime because of differing interpretations.

Qingu's avatar

@mattbrowne, here is my broad idea of how complex memes “evolved.”

Prologue. Animal behavior is purely, or mostly, instinctual. Insects are programmed, by their genetic code, to behave certain ways in response to stimuli. Birds know from genetic instinct how to build nests

Step 1. Somewhere down the line—perhaps primates or perhaps even earlier animals—some beast evolves the ability to mimic behavior they see. This allows behavior patterns to transfer from one individual to another—without a genetic basis.

2. Having brains that are able to mimic behavior proves more adaptive (at least in terms of speed) than having to encode it in genes. This ability spreads.

3. Some primates begin to mimic more complex behavior. Ways of grooming, for example. Or, hunting techniques. These behavior patterns are passed along from primate to primate and can be modified (accidentally or intentionally) along the way… creating “mutations.” The idea of culture emerges—a suite of learned behaviors that evolves over time, on its own.

4. Great apes mimic behavior that involves creating and using simple tools like digging sticks and spears. Technology emerges from this behavior. The way technology changes reflects the “mutations” in learned behavior as it passes from individual to individual. Technology, then, can be seen as “crystalized” learned behavior—the phenotype to behavior’s genotype.

5. Apes starts to mimic behavior involving specific vocalizations. One human makes a certain sound to signify a specific kind of warning, or found object. (Monkeys already do this, to a limited extent). The greatest ape of all, humans, mimics more and more complex vocalizations that signify more and more abstract objects and ideas. Language emerges.

6. Language and technology, combined, prove a potent force that hastens cultural evolution. What you call “memes” begin to emerge—ideas, codified in language and/or technology, that spread from person to person just as early, simple behavior patterns spread.

Now, here is where I think it starts to get really interesting, and goes a long way to explaining what’s up with religion.

7. Technology evolves the ability to reproduce itself. Also known as the invention of writing. Think about what a written work is. It’s technology—it’s crystalized learned behavior, a phenotype. And in particular, it’s a form of entity that, like a cell, contains the code to make more of itself. The code is linguistic meaning of the writing, understood by humans, that can organize them and urge them to reproduce the piece of writing entirely.

Writing was considered a magical force by some people. Plato was wary of it. Certainly, written works can take on a life of their own. A set of laws survives the king who wrote them and informs and in some way controls the behavior of later kings—who go on to copy those laws across the land. The scrolls that make up the Bible were carried around and copied by a tribe of nomads who followed the semantic meaning of the words written in them.

If technology : phenotype :: organism bodies : genotype, then I see writing as the emergence of a sort of DNA for technological evolution. Much of our relationship with technology in general, and writing in particular, has been symbiotic. But there are many cases where technology takes on a life of its own and uses us as its pawns, more parasitic (or perhaps enslaving) than symbiotic.

I don’t think it’s an accident that most of the really hardy religious cults sprung up around literate cultures. I think religious memes can be understood as instances of technological evolution subsuming and controlling human behavior.

TooBlue's avatar

I like memes.

Shuttle128's avatar

@Qingu and others: I just found this a few minutes ago and thought it was extremely relevant.

Mirror Neurons

mattbrowne's avatar

@Shuttle128 – I think large-scale replication of memes requires far more than learned behavior and learned concepts. What really matters for “reproductive success” is emotional memory in my opinion. Fire together, wire together. Let put 10,000 people into a scanner and tell them

“God loves you. This is really true.”

I think we would detect unique similarities of deeply religious people (a biological manifestation of a personal God meme). While everyone in the scanner would show activity in Wernicke’s area interpreting the words, I expect the rest to be quite different. Deeply religious people would experience much stronger emotions, while scientific people like you and I might access the concept of truth in a more abstract way. Yes, I agree with @Trillian that each person will interpret memes differently based on their previous experience. But when these are similar (like a very emotional born again experience) this might show up in brain scans even if individual codifications in neuron connections are somewhat different.

And you mentioned mirror neurons. If a fence-sitting person connects with a born-again Christian feeling some kind of spiritual epiphany in the other person memes might get “transmitted”, both concept and emotions. Fire together, wire together (Hebb’s rule).

The same happens when Richard Dawkins talks to people or when they read his books. It’s concepts and behavior plus emotions. This is why his memes get transmitted quite successfully. And these memes must leave an emotional trail in the brain somehow.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – This makes all a lot of sense to me, but I think one step is missing:

5. Apes starts to mimic behavior involving specific vocalizations (...). Language emerges.

6. Language and complex emotions combined, prove a potent force that hastens cultural evolution. Mirror neurons play a key role.

7. Language and technology, combined, prove a potent force that hastens cultural evolution. What you call “memes” begin to emerge—ideas, codified in language and/or technology, that spread from person to person just as early, simple behavior patterns spread.

8. Technology evolves the ability to reproduce itself.

Trillian's avatar

@mattbrowne & @Qingu . I’m glad this is still going on. I read this last night but didn’t have time to ask..
You both say that apes mimic behavior involving specific vocalizations (...). Language emerges.
Who or what are they mimicking? Somebody has to originate the vocalizations for someone else to mimic. Language emerges when meanings are attributed to sounds and then transmitted to and accepted by others then reinforced through repetition.
So part of the process is a cognitive leap of reason, kind of like the Helen Keller and wah-wah thing. Language cannot emerge by itself.
I wasn’t really headed anywhere with this, but it just seemed like you left out parts of the process.

Qingu's avatar

@Trillian, there are monkeys who make different vocalizations for different threats. Like, one sound will mean “danger from above” (i.e. like a hawk) and another sound will mean “danger from below” (i.e. panther).

The other monkeys nearby know what the vocalizations mean and respond accordingly (i.e. climb up or climb down the trees).

If monkeys can mimic each other’s behavior, and can recognize discreet sounds, they can probably mimic those sounds. What goes through the monkey’s brain when they mimic the sound for the first time? I don’t know, but I imagine it may be the “cognitive leap” that you’re talking about — I see panther, I make this sound, sound warns others…

Fyrius's avatar

If at this point you’re discussing whether animals can have memes (I’m too lazy to follow the thread), then I’d like to mention bird song. Birds learn from their parents what sounds to make.
It’s often compared to human language learning.

Another remark: an important aspect of human language is that it’s voluntarily used. Arguably, the same can’t be said of animal communication.
There is an anecdote involving a monkey species that uses vocalisations when they find food, among other situations. One such monkey found a bunch of food while alone, didn’t want the others to find out, and held his hand in front of his mouth to muffle his “I found food” cries, instead of not crying in the first place.

Do with that whatever you want.

flutherother's avatar

I don’t think we will find memes presence in the brain. Language is an example. A word is a meme but there is no physical location in the brain for any particular word. A word exists as a complex system of connections and associations that are impossible to disentangle and are unique to the individual.

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