Memes: The Weird World of Thought Viruses

"I feel the heat of the audience, and when the right time has come, I hurl a flaming javelin that sets the crowd on fire." -- Adolf Hitler

How could a 33-year-old army corporal, starving artist and self-acknowledged "failure at many things" take over one of the world's great nations, plunging it into a global war which killed more than 20 million people?

The answer, according to behavioral scientists, lies in the study of memes: thought viruses generated at a single source which infect millions with dangerous and destructive ideas.

Memes (pronounced "meems"), the scientists say, are behind what drives millions to embrace movements such as nazism, or to keep racist stereotypes alive.

Memes, also called "thought contagion," can result in herd-mentality disasters such as stock market panics. Panic over the fall of a single stock (Microsoft?) can whip through the minds of millions of investors, causing the market as a whole to plunge.

The Jingle in Your Head

Not all memes are bad. Some can be simply a catchy jingle, a hip phrase -- "whassup" -- or a song that refuses to leave your head.

"Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches," writes Richard Dawkins, who coined the term in his book "The Selfish Gene." Dawkins called his discovery the "meme" as a mental tribute to the "gene."

"Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation," Dawkins writes. "If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain."

In that respect, Dawkins' notion of the meme is itself, a meme.

In more formal terms, memes are "simply a unit of intellectual or cultural information that survives long enough to be recognized as such, and which can pass from mind to mind."

Fads & Fashions

Memes, perhaps, explain why millions of young people are studding themselves with piercings or etching their skin with tattoos. Memes explain the slavish devotion to Barney, Teletubbies, pet rocks and smiley face buttons. They explain fanatical Clinton-haters willing to wreck the U.S. government in pursuit of the President, and cultists willing to kill themselves in order to board a flying saucer in the tail of a comet.

That alone might seem alarming enough, but Dawkins claims on a website devoted to the subject that memes are actually living parasites.

"Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically," Dawkins says. "When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, 'belief in life after death' is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of people all over the world."

To behaviorists, memes are responsible for virtually every belief. Yale University psychologists Robert J. Sternberg and James C. Kaufman write that memes are responsible for our belief in such notions as, "astrological dating, beliefs in psychic powers and ESP, widespread ideas of women having innate partner wealth preferences, Nazism, U.S. slavery and racism, belief in corporal punishment of children..." In short, just about anything you can think of.

The Dark Side of the Force

Mega-memes infecting billions of people can have a beneficial effect, as in this expression of the Creator: "God indeed exists, if only as a pattern in brain structures replicated across the minds of billions of people throughout the world."

But on a darker note, memes can whip millions of people into a destructive fury.

Consider, for instance, the meme sparked by a piece of hate literature called "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Written by an anti-Semite, "The Protocols" claimed to be a pamphlet intercepted by the Czarist secret police of Russia in the early 1900s, which detailed a plot by Jews to conquer the world by controlling banks and the governments of many nations.

"The Protocols" inflammed the minds of not only the Nazis, but also that of auto maker Henry Ford, who published the pamphlet in America under the title "The International Jew." At the Shrine of the Little Flower church in Royal Oak, Michigan, Father Coughlin used the "Protocols" to rail at Jews throughout the Depression during a weekly radio show which reached millions in the Midwest.

But the meme didn't die in the ashes of Auschwitz and the murder of six million Jews: fear of an international Jewish conspiracy, a "new world order" and a One World Government rallied hundreds of far-right paramilitary groups during the '90s -- a cause which lead to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which killed 166 people.

Survival of the Fittest

Memes can spread like wildfire and may be difficult to root out, owing to the multi-dimensional nature of the mind.

"A meme survives in the world because people pass it on to other people, either vertically to the next generation, or horizontally to our fellows," writes behaviorist H. Keith Henson on website about memes. "This process is analogous to the way willow genes cause willow trees to spread them, or perhaps closer to the way cold viruses make us sneeze and spread them."

And, like real parasites, memes can kill their hosts, according to Lee Borkman on the same site:

"Memes, like genes, vary in their fitness to survive in the environment of human intellect," Borkman says. "Some reproduce like bunnies, but are very short-lived (fashions), while others are slow to reproduce, but hang around for eons (religions, perhaps?). Note that the fitness of the meme is not necessarily related to the fitness that it confers upon the human being who holds it. The most obvious example of this is the "Smoking is Cool" meme, which does very well for itself while killing off its hosts at a great rate."

The Meme Spreaders

Hitler, with his "flaming javelin," was a meme-spreader of the first order. He himself was infected by notions of ancient Teutonic gods, astrology and Germanic myths.

Just out of the Army, where he distinguished himself as a courier during World War I, Hitler was asked to join the 40 members of the German Worker's Party, made up largely of right-wing soldiers. Unimpressed with the group, Hitler said it was "like a high school debating society." But he used his memetic powers to shape the party into one of the most powerful forces in the world.

The first step, in thought contagion terms, was the simplest: he changed the party name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party, with the NAZI acroynm which was slang for "buddy." Everyone who joined the Nazis would be a buddy -- Bavarian for "cool dude" back in 1921.

As the years went on, Hitler's electrifying delivery held people spellbound at scores of speeches in beerhalls and stadiums, sometimes with 6,000 Nazi storm troopers standing at attention.

His message hurled a fiery javelin into the hungry minds of the German people. Consider this passage from "Hitler's Niece" by Ron Hansen (HarperCollins):

"Everything wrong in Germany, he said, was wrong because of the secret Zionist conspiracy to conquer the world. The Jews were parasites; they were vermin. They had stood by idly as Aryan soldiers died at the front, they had forced the armistice, fostered Communism, put their signatures on the 'treaty of disgrace,' and gotten fat on Germany's misery in their black markets. And now they were manipulating financial affairs, miseducating the young, radically changing the sciences, filling the humanities and arts with their ugliness and degeneracy, polluting Aryan blood with intermarriage. With a rage verging on hysteria, his face running with sweat, his shirt soaked through, his voice growing hoarse, Hitler shrieked, "I will pull out the evil of Jewry by its roots and exterminate it!""

The Victims & the Cure

The irony of the above passage is that the same hateful notions are interchangeable with the current crusade in America against gay citizens: accusations of miseducation, manipulating government, degenerate art, and the "pollution" of same-sex marriage.

Clintonphobes aside, the memes behind hate speech target vulnerable people: the attack on gays and lesbians by such strange bedfellows as Eminem and Dr. Laura; Don Imus jokes on the radio about dead Haitians floating in the ocean off Florida... But, as history shows, the cycle of hate can be broken in the mind. The Civil Rights movement helped suppress the meme of racism, creating the new black middle class. And the excesses of the concentration camps of World War II have made anti-Semiticism acceptable only in the lowest dregs of society.

Memes: is there a virus in your head that needs vaccination? Just knowing about memes allows us to take the first step in healing ourselves.

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