Dawkins referred to some memes as “viruses of the mind”, because being infected by the wrong meme was enough to cause you to do things against your own interests. For example suicide bombers, cult members, or conspiracy theorists could be viewed through the lens of being infected with “toxic memes”. If we stretch this analogy, the negative symptoms of mental illness – obsession, paranoia, schizophrenia, depression, and stress – appear to be the result of excessive growth of toxic memes inside the brains of the patients, dominating their attention: a kind of cancer of the mind. If this analogy holds, it follows that “meme therapy” might be a useful framing for methods that help those suffering from neurological conditions: a new kind of Darwinian medicine. We shouldn’t push this analogy too far, because many of these conditions have physical, chemical, or genetic causes and no amount of positive thoughts can help you “snap out of it”: that’s the wrong way to look at mental health. However it does feel like more than a coincidence that many of the homegrown methods for dealing with these types of issues fit well with this framework. For example going for a walk, listening to music, or taking a nap are all ways to “switch off your brain” for a time, effectively clearing your mind of whatever unwanted memes were occupying it. What is guided meditation and deep breathing other than techniques to calm your thoughts and empty your head of memes? Studies show even 13 minutes meditating per day can significantly improve focus. As William Wordsworth advised “Your mind is the garden. Your thoughts are the seeds. The harvest can either be flowers. Or weeds.”
Many people say they do their best work on airplanes, in offices, or in coffee shops, which is in part due to the background noise drowning out anything other than what you’re focused on. It’s also no coincidence that many of us claim to have our best ideas in the shower, or on long walks: it’s the only time we get a moment’s peace from the memes invading our brains. Successful and powerful people often take up hobbies that engage their full concentration, as the only way to bear the weight of their responsibilities. For example Mark Zuckerberg, talked on Joe Rogan about taking up Jiu Jitsu as a way of coping with the stress of running a product 3 billion people use every day. Even sitting and watching Netflix, reading a book, or playing video games could be considered a form of meme therapy: suspending disbelief for an hour or two and imagining yourself in a new world, taking a break from your own troubles. Entertainment allows you to, as Morpheus from the Matrix counsels, “Free Your Mind”. Folktales, stories, parables impart ancient wisdom, allowing us to learn from the hard-won lessons of those who came before, and avoid their mistakes. Ambitious people read books, watch interviews, and find mentors in the people they admire, in some way to absorb the ‘right’ memes that lead to success through osmosis. They say you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and this can only be because you’re taking on their memes, and integrating them as part of your identity. Wealth is a predictor of future success, and I suspect part of this is memetics rather than genetics or economics: your family pass on their most useful ideas about how the world works, and you are placed in privileged circles where you would be exposed to other people with equally successful ideas.
Why is it that we take a moment of silence to commemorate important tragic events? It gives us the time to dwell on what happened in the hopes of being able to collectively process it and learn from it. Similarly we have specific dates in the calendar to remember the Holocaust, World War II, or Independence Day, in part to keep refreshing healthy memes like patriotism, heroism, and sacrifice, and guard against the bad memes that led to these significant historical events. Perhaps this theory also explains why placebo drugs work: our mind has powerful control over our bodies, and if it thinks we’re better, it actually does make us better. The same goes for religious teachings like “love thy neighbor” or “turn the other cheek”, as well as attending good university or work experience at a leading company: it’s all about learning the right memes, and weeding out the wrong ones. Much of the activities organizations undertake are around spreading memes associated with the organization. Everything from a company logo to a beautiful cathedral is a reminder that company or religion exists, and says something about its meaning.
In some cases it seems one toxic meme is introduced to fight another, leading to a worse infestation: people drink to forget, or take drugs to escape trauma, and then the addiction becomes the bigger threat. Much like how some viruses or pathogens weaken your immune response, opening you up to other illnesses, some bad memes open the door to worse ones. High school bullying may from the basis for the toxic meme of bulimia, watching YouTube conspiracy theories might take you down the rabbit hole leading to anti-Semitism, or seeing a news report of a mass shooting might trigger someone to commit the same crime. Some people have the memetic equivalent of ‘weak immune systems’ and must be protected: for example children and the elderly, or those that have experienced trauma. We do have restrictions on advertising to children, but we don’t do much to protect the older generation from internet scams. We should also be doing more to support military veterans suffering from PTSD, for example following through on studies that have shown drugs such as MDMA can decrease the impact of negative memories.
There are distinctions to be made between the techniques used, and how impactful they could be on different kinds of problems. Stress is the invasion of more memes than you can handle, so taking a break and exercising or having a guided meditation session can be seen as a self-administered ‘broad-spectrum’ antibiotic, cleansing your whole system of toxins. Whereas sufferers of imposter-syndrome or issues with self-confidence – occupation of the toxic idea that you aren’t ‘good enough’ – might need something more targeted, like practicing affirmations, reading self-help books, or getting a pep talk from friends. Some memes are so toxic that intervention is needed, for example seeking psychiatric help or talking to a friendly voice on the other end of a suicide hotline. To some extent people can be inoculated from disinformation by educating them on how to identify it, and we might expect government intervention to stop the sources of information hazards just like we’d expect the government to take action against terrorists releasing a bioweapon. These methods differ in degree of effectiveness, the potential risk of unintended consequences, and cost of treatment, but in all cases the goal is the same: confront and expel bad memes, and replace them with good ones.
Disinfect Your Mind: Defend Yourself with Memetics Against Mass Media, Politicians, Corporate Management, Your Aunt's Advice, and Other Mind Viruses
Genes, Memes, Culture, and Mental Illness: Toward an Integrative Model
how am i just learning that the reason i’m able to do all my best work on airplanes
MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD edges closer
Meditation as meme weeding
Peer reviewed work from @wasuzuki lab @nyuniversity shows that a 13min per day meditation significantly improves focus.
The Case for Silence
Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine
You're The Average Of The Five People You Spend The Most Time With
Your mind is a garden