Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.


It’s all clear to me now… Such statements tend to be followed by a real gem of insight or total insanity. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you which is to be the case regarding what follows. What I believe I have done is construct a relevant and interesting thesis for a book that I am writing concerning the human mind, memes and the media. It makes sense to me anyway. The media has a greater influence on individual humans and society than we yet realize. Of course there are arguments that violence in media can incite violence in children. There are artistic philosophies that tell us that witnessing events through media can be cathartic and allow us to let emotions pass through us that we would otherwise wish to contain. But this kind of ethereal influence is not at all what I want to explore here. Rather this is an argument for the case that the media has formed your opinions. Your interest in a subject, your pursuit of an object, your sense of self-worth, what standards you measure yourself against, your hopes and fears are all created within you by the media. That bears repeating. I am not saying that you have seen things in the media that you have then formed an opinion about. I am saying that engaging the media, being saturated by it, being around it, has formed most of your opinions and ideas about the world. And perhaps another way to say this would be to say that if you lived in a world without media you would in fact be a very different person.

The media has accomplished this feat with the help of an evolutionary force known as the meme.  The meme is a concept originally created by Richard Dawkins as a theoretical example of a replicator and a unit of evolutionary cultural transmission.  A replicator, in some sense, is Nature's most basic form of life.  In fact, even referring to a replicator as life is a stretch.  They are exactly what they sounds like: something that can copy itself.  Genes are replicators, as well as viruses and prions (infectious proteins).  Like genes, memes copy themselves and migrate from environment to environment and possess the qualities of copy fidelity, fecundity and longevity. [1] All that will be covered in greater detail because there is much more to it than that.  Very little yet is understood about memes, but as we will see here, it is clear that their force that can be monitored and measured and that they have a serious influence over the human mind. 

Specifically, they have an incredible influence on the neocortex of the human mind, the portion of the brain that allows for our ability to abstract and gives us perceptual recall over time. [2]  We have a relational capacity that creates a mental environment in which perceptions can be compared and combined, situations can be sussed out in advance or contemplated after their occurrence. [3] That particular talent is shared with many species and many, as we shall see, are also capable of being influenced by memes.  However, our unique ability to create artifacts within the physical world, or media, have given memes greater channels by which to migrate from mind to mind. It is this aspect, this parallel evolution of our tool use adaptation and memes can explain the incredibly rapid advancement we have seen in human culture in the last 10,000 years.  It is this parallel evolution that has created all of our technology and given us more control over our environment than any species before us.

Symbiotically with the genetic adaptation of tool use, abstractions within the homo sapiens mind have been allowed to enter the physical realm.  These artifacts are what we refer to as media (though most of us just mean the television by that phrase). [4]  What media really are is extensions of mankind's physicality.  Marshall McLuhan championed this idea in the 70s as well.  He easily saw media as a bridge between the mind and reality but in an overarching fashion and not in a memetic sense.  And although his observations were exacting, he did not present an underlying theory as to how media gained its influence over us.

Through media (speech, writing, pictures, etc.) memes migrate from one environment to another, each of these environments being an individual human mind.  That is to say, it is not the original meme that actually migrates, but that a copy of the original meme emerges in the new mind and constructed of that minds' perceptions.  If the perceptions (and other memes) present in the new mind cannot support the copy then it will not exist.

It is critical to note that the existence of the meme in the new mind has nothing to do with a subjective critique of the idea but rather with the fitness of the meme.  Everyone has had a song stuck in their head, repeating over and over and they may even despise the song.  Here again, the meme for the song is based on certain already present features of the mind, such as an understanding of patterns in Western music in this case.  If the media were transmitting an ancient aboriginal folk song that had no similar cadence, no similar pattern, it may not be perceived as music at all, but rather noise, and the creation of a new meme would not occur.  In this sense modern media can be seen as a spore-like explosion of memes attempting to migrate through an artifactual network to as many various environments as possible and the best memes, those with the greatest fitness spread.

It is this complete lack of a subjective critique that can make memes so dangerous.  Some memes are, in fact, life threatening. For instance, imitating the behavior of Wile E. Coyote can be bad for you. In the case of memes such as this the mind's other parts (such as instinctual behaviors of protection or self-preservation located in the Medulla Oblongata) can be entirely overrided.  The instinct to reproduce can be overrided.  And I would argue that the instinct to preserve our natural habitat, an instinct that can be shown that all mammals possess, can also be overridden and has been overridden to a dangerous degree.

When Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message" he meant that often what the media is doing to our culture is not in the message carried by the media.  The media don't deliver memes to you -- there are no memes outside minds.  But the media deliver the perceptions necessary to form a new copy of a meme.  The chaos of media surrounding us today allows for a total expansion  of meme replication in the interest of memes as opposed to in the interest of humans.

[1] Dawkins, Richard. “The Selfish Gene” 1976

[2] Hawkins, Jeff. “On Intelligence” 2005

[3] Experiements have shown that a rat (a mammal with a neocortex) can travel through a maze by memory after having solved it once. A lizard, with no neocortex, cannot accomplish this feat ever.

[4] McLuhan, Marshall. “Understanding Media” 1964 — McLuhan referred to everything from the alphabet to money to the wheel to television as media because they were all physical extensions of the human mind. They all also are not possible without our genetic adaptation to use tools and our capacity to utilize memes.

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