mind, matter, meaning and information


(The way this is structured at present most people would do better to read cultural information before this page.)

Cultural information can be exchanged at any time between any members of a society, instead of being transmitted only from parents to offspring at reproduction. Like genes, the meme can survive the death of all its current carriers, but while genetic information is carried within cells, cultural information reaches the brain via the senses and is stored there, before being transmitted on to another brain, via behaviour (where that includes talking, writing, and so on). We do not need to learn everything there is to know about personal financial advisers, but might pick up the idea of consulting one from a friend or colleague, just as the adviser picked up the many, many memes that go to make up her expertise from books and tutors while training, and some of these memes will be passed on to her clients.

The most obvious indication of memetic transmission is where one individual observes another performing some behaviour, and later imitates it. So to start humming a tune you have just heard is a symptom of memetic “infection”, as is the picking up of a local accent, and, indeed, learning to speak. The concept of infection is often used in memetics, because unlike genes, which are an essential part of us, memes invade us from “outside”. (It can be argued that they're an essential part of us anyway, but that's a separate issue—or I'm currently treating it as one, anyway!) They are the behavioural equivalent of the microbes and other lifeforms that live upon and within us—though of course some of those are beneficial, like the intestinal bacteria that assist digestion.

But despite the fact that between them, they comprise our culture, not all memes are good for us—most people have experienced a jingle going around and around in the head to the point of annoyance, seemingly beyond conscious control. The fact that we are receptive to items of information, does not mean either that we consciously choose to adopt them, or that they must be to our overall benefit. You probably see some political ideas as being highly detrimental. The expression “viruses of the mind” is sometimes used for deleterious memes, or groups of them—memes often group together just as do genes, to form “coadapted meme complexes”, or “memeplexes”. Examples of types of memeplexes that might be judged beneficial or detrimental are political ideologies and religions.

It seems certain that simple imitation of behaviour was the original method of memetic transmission, but with increasingly sophisticated human communications, they have found shortcuts from one brain to another. A particular type of behaviour might spread, not just by being directly copied, but by being talked about. Replication still takes place, but it is not due solely to direct imitation—we often do things as a result of being told about them. And as well as talking, of course, we have writing, and all of the other modern media. The main distinction to be drawn here is between symbolic and non-symbolic communications. With direct imitation, the meme is encoded in behaviour (as well as brains), but with symbolic communications, it is encoded most often in words, whether written or spoken. Now, communicating, in any way, is certainly a form of behaviour, but what I find most interesting about this, and what I believe is the most useful way to view it, is that this is another level of encoding, beyond basic neural and behavioural encoding. But we started with imitation, both as very young individuals and while evolving as a species—all communication is based upon it.

Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:36:17 by Robin Faichney .