In his best-selling book,Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme, Richard Brodie provides an interesting and insightful look into the impact of memes--what he calls the DNA of human society.
A meme is a basic unit of imitation. All trends, social conventions and religions are built on memes. Like DNA, a meme's purpose is to copy itself. Genetic evolution can take decades, centuries or millennia. However, a meme--an idea, a catchy phrase, a trendy behavior--can evolve almost instantaneously, especially in the incredibly interconnected world in which we live today.
The most effective memes are the ones that spread the easiest. Think of a photograph or video that gets spread quickly on the Internet. It is said to have gone "viral." Memes can also survive beyond the short-term trend and spread across vast regions of space and time.
But what makes the most effective memes successful? How do some ideas, images and messages catch our attention more than others? According to Brodie, memes are like a computer software that builds on basic brain functions or "hardware design." The hardware (brain) is driven by the most basic human drives, such as hunger, fear and sex. The software (memes) enhance the functionality of the hardware. This hardware/software design has been fundamentally the same since primitive man.
"In other words, our brains made us better at pursuing the four basic drives animals have, fondly referred to by zooligists as the "four F's": fighting, fleeing, feeding, and--er--finding a mate." ~ Richard Brodie Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme
The marketing adage, "sex sells and we're buying," is true. This can be extended to fear, food and fighting. From these basic brain functions our figurative buttons are formed. Mass media and marketing messages use these buttons to get your attention. The buttons are commonly pressed by asking questions with one of the four F's imbedded:
- Are your children safe riding the bus?
- Got milk?
- Hungry for Pizza?
- Will the European Debt Crisis Tip the World into Recession?
One of the key lessons I took away from this book is that there are few human beings who are conscious of their surroundings and are therefore rarely acting authentically -- they live in a kind of dream state -- by eating, buying and socializing without knowing why they do what they do -- they imitate and replicate -- memes and DNA go on surviving long after we are gone.
"The word pay in 'pay attention' is quite apt. As we are conscious beings, attention is our most precious commodity. Attention is a piece of our consciousness, a slice of our human life. When we direct our attention at something, we are spending a piece of conscious life." ~ Richard Brodie,Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme
Imitation is human but it may be best used as a tool for learning, especially when young. Once we learn how to function in our environment, we may then move on to learning about ourselves. The challenge, however, is that self-knowledge and self-awareness take a conscious mind, which is not part of our hard-wiring.
It is not necessary for a computer to understand how it is programmed--it just runs the program. Similarly, our brains naturally and automatically perform very simple and specific tasks. Therefore the natural tendency for humans is to go on through life without consciousness and our buttons are easily pressed.
Try finding the memes that have become your programming: Where did your attitudes about money come from? Why do you tend to vote for the same political party? What made you buy the food item that wasn't on your list? Begin by recognizing how you are programmed to think and act in a certain way. You are then enabled to "de-program" yourself and act consciously and authentically.
Now, if we can only spread this meme to others we may build a better world!