The Energonomics of Memes

29 March 2008 at 1:18 pm Leave a comment

I have picked up Why Choose This Book? again (which I first mentioned in “Energonomics of the Brain“). Chapter 4, titled “Sharks Don’t Go On Hunger Strikes,” speaks of the power of memes, of abstract ideas, to circumvent our instincts for survival. He starts with the Heaven’s Gate cult tragedy as a way to introduce the chapter:

The amazing part of the Heaven’s Gate story is that the cult members used an abstract idea–going to the “next level”–to veto their powerful instincts to survive. This act defines a behavioral superpower–the capacity to veto survival instincts to the point of death. . . . A mere idea hijacked the controls of these people’s brains and drove their bodies off a cliff (88-89).

Montague then explains how abstract goals become substituted for fundamental instincts like eating and procreating:

Ideas gain the power of rewards and become instantly meaningful to the rest of the brain. . . . Now, this kind of trick provides for an extremely creative learning machine. It can choose to ignore its instincts momentarily and pursue a thought to the exclusion of everything else. It is easy to see how such a power could be useful for generating cognitive innovations. An idea with the beckoning power of ice cream can control a succession of thoughts for some time. The effect is just like foraging for food hidden under rocks and behind bushes in a field. . . . Cool trick. Redeploy foraging in the pursuit of cognitive innovation. Foraging fields for food becomes foraging a mental storehouse for new ideas. (111)

Now anyone associated with academia will recognize this process: how one can go for hours without eating and without thinking about it as one pursues an idea to its limits. Here, ideas become equivalent to the goals of basic instincts: finding food, or having sex.

Memes, then, become a way of channeling brain energy toward particular goals which may or may not be in the best interests of one’s survival, as in the case of the Heaven’s Gate cult members. Montague’s work goes a long way toward understanding the process of how such a system can evolve, as well as what makes us as humans so different from other animals.

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Entry filed under: academia, energonomics, memes, neuroscience, psychoenergonomics, psychology.

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