Works in Progress - Autumn 2011

Meme, Myself, and I

By Jonnie Hughes | March 21, 2013


Science wit and documentary filmmaker Jonnie Hughes observes that the sundry items and ideas littering our vast cultural landscape—from cowboy hats to the wording of jokes—are products of evolution governed by laws of variation, inheritance, and selection. Sound familiar?

A Brit with an eye for American quirks, Hughes has, Darwin-like, written On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves), published in August. His wry observations of our shopping malls and tribal reservations serve to illuminate somewhat larger concepts. Who better to pose questions on the future of human self-perception, as he does here for the Scholar?


1. In the past hundred years we’ve learned more about our biological selves than we could ever have imagined possible. We’ve extrapolated our evolutionary past, located our place in Earth’s ecology, fathomed the functioning of our bodies down to the molecular level, and translated the language of our inheritance. But we’re still largely in the dark about our psychological selves. My hunch is that this century will be the century of psychological discovery. My big question is this: Will we be able to cope with this extra self-perception?


2. The rest of my questions stem from that big one. For example, it’s likely that in the next decade fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanners and EEGs (electroencephalograms) will be able to determine whether we are lying. Whenever someone lies, clues become detectable in the cortex. How will this disarming science affect our judicial system? Will we have to don fMRI hats whenever our word is doubted? Will pressure groups begin campaigning for the fundamental human right to lie?


3. Work on the neuroscience of religiosity is uncovering the machinery of our faith. Much to the horror of the devout, it now appears that God may simply be a product of overactive temporal lobes and underactive parietal lobes. If it’s possible to treat the parts of the brain that make us vulnerable to those who come knocking at our doors in comfortable shoes and set smiles, should we take steps to protect ourselves? And if so could humanity enter a postreligious era? Would we ever miss our deities?


4. Experiments on everyone from Buddhist monks to emo rockers indicate that we each have a “happiness set point” determined by the relative activity of our left and right prefrontal cortices. The more we hang to the left, the happier we are. If it’s possible to artificially raise our mean happiness, should we? Would the world be a happier place if we were happier, or would it be just a little bit dull?


5. The evil geniuses at the core of marketing companies have a new weapon at their disposal: neuromarketing. The fMRI has been used to explain the preference for Coke over Pepsi. Although Pepsi always wins in blind trials, across the world people will say that they prefer Coca-Cola. We now know why. Under fMRI, subjects who knew they were drinking Coke suddenly showed activity in the medial prefrontal cortex—the center of self-identification, the part of your brain that makes you feel like you. Somehow, the Coca-Cola Company has requisitioned real estate in our minds. We designate ourselves Coke persons because we admire our perception of other Coke persons and override our pleasure centers in order to buddy up to the brand. Should we be concerned that we define ourselves by the brands that we subscribe to? Is it ever going to be possible to “find ourselves” in a consumer world? And what chance have we got if this technology gets into the wrong hands?


6. Psychologists have determined that we are unimpressive at locating the truth. To begin with, we tend to believe the first thing we’re told over any subsequent version because the first version will always be the one that we most rehearse. We are suckers for a good sell. If we find the proponent of an idea charismatic, then we are far more inclined to believe in it than if we don’t take a shine to that person. Likewise, the mood we’re in when we receive a new idea has a strong yet irrational influence on our acceptance of a new truth. However, despite the partiality in play, we then rarely remember accurately the source of the “truths” we take as gospel because our semantic (meaning) and episodic (personal event) memories are separated in our brains. And yet we don’t appear to care that our referencing system is screwy. We are riddled with a “confirmation bias,” a strong propensity to “believe” only those ideas that support or at least loosely collaborate with our existing beliefs. And finally, we indulge in energetic “motivated reasoning,” picking apart others’ beliefs if they conflict with our own. With all this in mind, how are we supposed to know what to “believe”? Indeed, how can we be confident in anything we say?


7.  There’s further unsettling news ahead. Neuroscientists are coming to a consensus regarding “the Self”; namely, there isn’t one. They’re also discovering that free will is an illusion—that each perceived choice we make is merely a retrospective memo of something our unconscious, mindless brains have already decided to do. So if we’re not in charge, and indeed not even “we,” who is? And how will this confusion over our agency play out in the courts? How can we be guilty when there is no mens rea, no guilty mind, in place?


8. One proposal for the agent that is in charge of our minds comes from far-left field yet is swiftly gathering academic support. “Meme theory” suggests that our ideas are at the helm of our conscious minds—that, if you like, we do not have ideas, ideas have us. Memeticists propose that ideas use us as hosts and reproductive organs, leaping from brain to brain with every demonstration or utterance, selfish and malignant just like our genes, and are engaged in a runaway evolution that has dragged us out of the East African semidesert and into the 21st century without any purposeful intervention from our species whatsoever. How do “you” “like” that “idea”? And where on Earth do we go from there?

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