Last month’s column discussed the human need to replicate and exchange both biological and cultural information. A gene contains and transmits the cross-generation biological information an organism needs to develop and maintain itself. A meme is the cultural equivalent of a gene—a bit of replicated information that spreads through imitation, teaching, and learning. Memes can range from trivial jokes, tunes, and slogans to such useful information as how to acquire and prepare food and shelter. Like genes, memes can evolve over time (e.g., clothing fashions).

Animals that have a relatively short lifespan and live within a narrow ecological niche are born with innate survival and reproductive strategies. They typically die when they confront an environmental challenge beyond their innate capabilities. Variant members of their species who can somehow meet the challenge will survive, and so pass on the genetic characteristics that enhanced their success. The concept of learning for such species is thus an evolutionary process in which generations gradually adapt to environmental change.

Humans need a supplementary strategy. We have a long interdependent lifespan and can live almost anywhere. We thus confront many complex challenges that would be difficult at best to genetically encode (such as to recognize individuals, recall restaurants, play a piano, and construct clothing). Since we’re born with a very immature brain, most of our survival strategies aren’t innate, but rather must be learned throughout life, and especially during our extended juvenile stage. Brain processes that enhance learning are thus essential to human life. Mirror Neurons (2002), memory, and memes are key elements of this complex system.

Our three-pound adult brain is biologically expensive. It’s only 2% of our body’s weight, but it uses 20% of our body’s energy. The good news is that our large brain’s processing capabilities provide us with such important advantages as superior imitative and communication skills that enhance learning, and considerable flexibility in how we respond to novel and familiar challenges.

The Physical Reality of Memes
Genes were only a functional concept at the beginning of the 20th century. No one understood the physical manifestation of biological replication. The discovery of DNA in 1953 identified the biological substrate of the genetic codes that develop and maintain our body. The issue at the beginning of the 21st century is similar: Do cultural ideas (memes) that are similarly critical to human development and survival also have an inherent physical manifestation? Does a meme thus merely inhabit my brain during an independent lifetime in which it will infect many brains?

In The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think (2003, Free Press) Robert Aunger argues (in a fascinating but somewhat technical exploration of the issue) that memes do exist, and suggests where memes might be located in our brain. He suggests however that much further discovery about our brain (and especially memory) must occur before we truly understand memes.

Aunger doesn’t consider artifacts (such as cars or shoes) or behaviors (such as guitar playing or skiing) to be memes in themselves since they don’t have the internal replicative capability that genes have. He includes an extensive discussion of computer viruses, which he also doesn’t currently consider mimetic for the same reason. But then, who knows what will occur in computer technology and artificial intelligence during the next few years? I’m only 10 years beyond owning an Apple 2e, which I then thought had amazing capabilities.

Only brain states currently have the internal ability to replicate information and behavior, and Aunger believes that the most likely candidate for the location of the physical substrate of memes would be in small activation nodes (or systems) of neurons within larger memory networks.

Genetic information is used to build and maintain one’s body, but it can also be sexually transmitted into a new organism. Aunger suggests that mimetic information is similarly coded into memory networks where it’s principally used to help solve personal problems, but it can also be transmitted to others via imitation and language (see last month’s discussion of language codes).

A memory network is a (currently ill-understood) neuronal configuration that can represent an idea, object, or event. Think of the Happy Birthday song. A birthday will activate the memory network, but it’s also possible for other networks in our brain to internally trigger the network, even though no birthday is being celebrated (and you’re probably mentally singing the Happy Birthday song right now).

But just as it’s possible to construct a protein by expressing the information in a gene without destroying the gene in the process, it’s similarly possible to transmit the information in our memory into other brains via language and/or behavior without destroying our own memory. It’s a replication of information, not a gift. The Happy Birthday song thus becomes a meme whose evolutionary travels among culturally related brains are analogous to the spread of genetic information within a species. It’s also possible (but not known for sure) that a specific meme’s brain location and configuration might be similar in different people.

Aunger titled his book The Electric Meme because he believes that a meme is principally a function of the electrochemical state of a specific neuronal network node—its propensity to activate other networks. Unlike the network itself, the node’s firing state can be duplicated elsewhere within a brain—or enter into the brain of another person—so the node’s electrochemical state provides for a meme what the DNA code provides for a gene.

Memes are an intriguing, but currently complicated concept. DNA was similarly difficult for most people to understand when it was discovered. I expect that we’ll hear much more about this still controversial concept in the coming years. Further, in the process we’ll come to understand teaching and learning at a much more fundamental level, just as we’ve increased our understanding of genetics tremendously during the past 50 years. The books by Dawkins, Blackmore, and now Aunger (listed below), provide a stimulating introduction to the concept of memes.