Since Richard Dawkins coined the word ‘meme’ in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, we have had some difficulty defining the word more specifically. Despite the intuitive sense that the word does capture something meaningful, the smallest unit of cultural replication, a science of mimetics has not gained widespread traction. Of course, knowing what culture actually is would be a big help. Other primates show cultural differences between groups. Chimpanzees and bonobos are different species, though very much like genetically, and their ‘cultures’ are quite different. We can even see such differences between different groups of chimpanzees. By we I mean those who study and are very knowledgeable about these animals. Other scientists have documented that some species of birds have different songs characteristic of geographically isolated groups. Do these animals operate with memes? Human culture also varies according to geographical isolation as well as by temporal change. Five and six hundred years ago Western culture comprised some memes supporting the divine right of kings, i.e., royalty=sun=god=supreme power=do what they say or else. Some cultures continue to transmit such memes about their leadership, while we now scoff at the notion (and hopefully argue against those who challenge the separation of church and state).
Of course we know roughly what human culture is, even though we have difficulty breaking it down into the measurable, empirical units that are memes. And of course, our culture is different from those of other animals’ because ours in composed through our superb empathic capacity and especially through our distinctive symbolic ability. Part of the difficulty defining memes comes from just that: our protean symbolic abilities that foment society wide memes to form our culture. While we electronically enhanced humans quickly think of emojis and emoticons as memes, these are actually just icons, simple signs standing for one thing, e.g., happy face=happy, LOL=humor maybe ironic, etc. Our culture is a much richer phenomena; it is more an ecology of memes that regulates social relationships than cartoonish marks that serve as shorthand for social niceties or the thoughts punctuating communicative transitions. Like the ones of royalty’s divine right, memes are the coin of exchange between individuals and their society and they change and shift with cultural evolution. Individuals take in societal expectations for cohesion and contribution and then social developments slowly modify what those are. Take, for example, the meme of ‘women’s liberation’ from the 1950s on. This change of role expectations resulted from a complex of factors, i.e., contraceptive medicine, employment patterns, educational advances, voting, etc. The meme operated across society in this change of cultural roles.
So memes mutate and culture evolves through a complex dialectic of symbolic interaction. No wonder they are difficult to define very precisely, and this is only one side of the problem. We also need to understand how our brains receive, produce, and process memes psychologically. Memes are only as effective as they structure or regulate our mental processes; they provide guidance for each individual in that social group. Someone who rejects the memes (“the King is a man same as any of us” sort of thing) is a rebel or at worse, unsocialized, or at best, a leader of cultural change. How do we understand this process of meme transmission and meme mutation? In answering this question we look to psychology, sociology and neuroscience hoping to find a bridge between biological science and cultural exchange. We are explorers here; no map shows the terrain between evolutionary biology and the social sciences. The liberal arts must be close by, but where, oh, where?
In place of ‘replication’ Dawkins and others generally use the term ‘imitation’, an old stand-by from the dawn of psychological science. Memes are transmitted through imitation and change through imperfect imitation, much like the old whispering game. While this helps some to clarify, it also limits our view. We may have no map connecting evolutionary biology and the social sciences but neither do we need obfuscation, especially when we have a better alternative. In the 1980s Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues discovered neurons in monkey brains (a finding since extended to other species) that lit up when the animal performed a particular action, e.g., cracking a nut, and also when the animal observed another performing that same action. Instead of naming these ‘imitation neurons’, they felicitously called them ‘mirror neurons’. Imitation is ‘monkey see, monkey do’; mirroring is ‘monkey see, monkey do but only in the mind’. That is an important difference, the difference, as it were, between Skinner and Freud.
Mirroring comprises imitation and even the distorted imitation like the fun house mirrors at the fair, but the truly important feature here is the silver backing that represents or brings forth the endogenous, autonomous and autogenic impulses of a vital mind. We humans, and indeed other animals, bring as much to the image as our sensory organs do, even more in our case. This is a mirror more akin to the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter that shows viewers an image of their own desires. This is a mirror wherein reflections may come from without, may be held and changed, and even more may come from within.
Our quicksilver brains carry out mirroring in many ways through different systems and for different purposes. Consider the initial discovery. We, along with other primates and some other animals, monitor others’ actions more or less automatically and sometimes quite closely and consciously. We see someone pick up a cup and drink tea, our tea drinking motor cells light up. We see someone put their hand down as if they were going to drink tea and our drinking mirror system lights up. We see someone glance at the teapot and fix them some tea. Psychologically such a system makes cooperating easy to do and it helps us to learn by imitation, e.g., how to knap a stone for a sharp edge. It also lets us modify the motoric protocols for a better performance. Some animals can use this system in a playfully false manner, like one dog feinting one way and then going another in order to trick the other dog or sort of like a football or basketball player with the ball faking out the defensive player. Sometimes we mirror too closely and lose points in the game.
Mirroring systems are more ubiquitous than we might suppose. We mirror each others’ faces, thereby taking in information about another’s mood, manifest intention, etc. Our good dogs do this with us as well. Family members and intimates communicate without communicating, by communing empathically, cooperating (or not) in a variety of tasks without explicitly planning it. Being familiar together brings with it a wealth of engagement in countless small ways and often unappreciated until later. I am thinking of watching a grandfather with his young grandson, who is rather unconsciously though perhaps admiringly striking the same pose as his elder or those living with a loved one over a long time whose shared context and current empathic communication almost creates a unity of mind making it easier to finish the other’s thought or to remember what the other forgot. Our phenotypic personality develops as our brain’s mirroring systems mature and we internalize features of our important persons even as we bring our own native abilities to our relationships.
Our mirror systems operate across sensory modalities and with both concrete and symbolic information. The arcuate fasciculus (AF) is a long fiber system that connects Wernicke’s area (auditory understanding) and Broca’s area (expressive speech); it helps us to mirror what we heard the other say. When the AF is severed, the person cannot repeat what they just heard. The AF carries the auditory signal to the speech articulation system in a way that facilitates the motoric mirroring of speech. In conduction aphasia due to brain injury when the AF is disrupted, the person may understand and even answer but cannot repeat what they heard. Then we have the opposite when some children with autistic spectrum disorder are echolalic and can repeat anything clearly but understand very little. Mirroring starts the process of deeper social connection and understanding. What is true of the left arcuate fasciculus for language is also true of the right AF for affective communication. Even more basically some might posit that our sensory organs ‘mirror’ what is out there, reflecting the sensory information in the virtual figures of neural processing.
Memes are the figures of cultural mirroring. They are the means whereby important social/cultural information is brought forward easily into the members’ minds. They are like echoes sounding through the group that enable us to dance together. Memes are socially constructed and shared, and to be effective, they must channel individual efforts to contribute to group responsibilities. Here we come to the difference between memes and tropes. Memes replicate and function well only when they spread accurately, i.e., the cultural contagion of these information viruses spreads as our mirrors reflect with little distortion, etc. Tropes are an artistic element; they function well in the individual’s composition of the artwork and then with any other individual culturally similar enough to understand the trope’s figure. To comprehend Elizabethan literature, we must understand the meme of royalty=divine=sun=better do as they say. To appreciate Shakespeare, we must mirror and feel fully the tropes he wrought, e.g. “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”. Tropes are not standardized or culturally mirrored, or if they are, they function as clichés. Ho-hum. Tropes are vital, intuitive renderings from the depths of the mirror; they are not reflective but generative, and they express some important feeling about our particular, individual experience. Tropes, indeed all art, provide the silver backing of our mirroring; without them we would just be imitators with an astonishingly impoverished culture by current standards. And that is really why I like the term ‘mirroring’ more than ‘imitation,’ and that is why the study of art is so important to biology and neuroscience. We may never understand the quicksilver creativity of intuition; we certainly won’t in the positivistic sense of understanding, which is bent upon exerting control, but I hope we come to appreciate more this manifestation of life’s vitality, as uncontrollable as it may be! Our science is not limited to empiricism, as necessary and important as hypothesis testing and data are, but also includes the paradigms we creative Humans bring to our endeavors. Here is a place of rest before I travel on, but coming in the near future a post about the dual loop model of language, its wider context and the temporal parameters of mental information.