Writer’s Workshop: “Virus Of The Mind”

Let me preface this by saying that anytime I try to discuss memetics, I manage to, in the words of Andy Griffith, “catch my britches on my own pitchfork.” Years ago, I wrote about “the brain vs. the mind” and the difference between genetics and memetics. Both are important to your development as a person: genetics determines the physical you (your DNA), where memetics determines, for lack of a better term, the spiritual you (your culture, ethos, beliefs, etc.).

This has been an interesting year (as in “may you live in interesting times”), in that it’s an election year and a year in which there’s been considerable turmoil due to Covid-19, a very nasty coronavirus that has the ability to kill people. It has been, and will be, a time when a lot of messages about said election and said pandemic have been flying around in the media and online. The outcome of all of these things is going to depend on which memes, units of “cultural transfer” which Richard Dawkins first discussed in his book The Selfish Gene, are going to catch on and which are going to be rejected.

The book that introduced me to the notion of memes and memetics is Richard Brodie’s 1996 book, Virus Of The Mind: The New Science Of The Meme. Brodie advances the notion that a meme (for eample, “step on a crack, break your mother’s back”) works in much the same way as a virus does: its sole purpose is to reproduce itself. Whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, it “infects” a person and starts reproducing itself. The “infected” person then goes about spreading the meme, “infecting” others, until it’s “infected” as many people as it can. Where a virus such as Covid-19 makes people ill, even kills them, the meme makes people do and think differently. News broadcasts, political campaign advertising, pornography, and posts to social media are just a few ways these memes get started. I’m sure that the term “going viral” came from the way these messages replicate themselves.

I just started re-reading the book, because this year seems to be one rich in memes, with the election in November, the continuing battles against Covid-19 and the struggle to get things back to “normal,” either the normal we had before March or some form of new “normal” that grows out of everything we’ve learned. I made the comment recently that I’m less concerned about Covid-19 than I am about the “viruses of the mind” that occur as a result. I think everyone should be, and the way to do that is to learn to recognize the memes for what they are.

17 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: “Virus Of The Mind”

  1. As someone who engages in a moderate amount of meme-sharing, I do so mostly when I can identify with one in particular or when I feel like sharing something totally ridiculous.

    But….I’m now adding this book to my reading list, along with Susan Blackmore´s The Meme Machine. And, I checked on that Cadbury thing…

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  2. Interesting topic. I remember reading that book way back when. In our socially mediated society I’d suggest that memes are here to stay because they allow a person to pretend to know something, when in fact all he or she knows is a clever-ish little something. 🙄

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  3. Excellent post, John, and the book intrigues me. I am guilty of creating and sharing memes.)( I admit I initially clicked because I thought this was going to be about the song of the same title, by Heather Nova. )

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    1. I think we all are “guilty” of spreading memes, but that’s the whole point: it gets to where you don’t even realize you’re doing it.

      That song explains the whole thing pretty well…

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  4. This is excellent and I think it gives a great comment plus more when there is a Meme that can go to millions if not watched. This is how people should be right now.

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    1. It’s an excellent book. Maybe not as thorough as others (cf “The Selfish Gene”) but gives a good introduction to it. Worth a read, and you can probably find it in your local library.

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  5. Memes are a good way to spread misinformation due to their brevity and their off-the-cuff style. People share them without thinking or caring about the source. The same way people share posts about Cadbury’s giving away hampers to everyone who shares, there’s a just-in-case attitude which can be very scary if you take it to extremes. If you look into history, what starts out as worrying becomes normal over time, if taken in small enough steps that the population doesn’t pick up on the changes.

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