Polichak on memetics

From: Dace (edace@earthlink.net)
Date: Wed 28 May 2003 - 21:29:18 GMT

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    > From: Ray Recchia <rrecchia@mail.clarityconnect.com>
    > Subject: Re: never wanting to grow up
    > Ted wrote:
    > >It's not the least bit arbitrary. Not all information flows memetically.
    > >Much of it flows according to standard models of information transfer,
    > >developed and refined over many years by social scientists. To claim
    > >all [transmitted] ideas are memes is to defy conventional science.
    > Which views are those? Don't social scientists have views on how
    > subconscious habits are passed at all? That surprises me.
    > Ray Recchia

    My source is SUNY cognitive psychologist James W. Polichak. I'll just quote from his 1998 article in Skeptic (Vol. 6, No. 3):

    What is notably absent from [Aaron] Lynch's review [Thought Contagion, 1996] and from the analyses of most memeticists is any mention of the research that has been done in two fields that are directly concerned with human information processing and the behaviors that result from the intake of information-- cognitive and social psychology. Researchers in these fields have been systematically investigating how humans receive, process, and transfer information (Hunt, 1993). A cursory examination of some of the basic findings in these fields will show that, rather than unifying the study of the human brain and culture, memetic theory is based on an inaccurate model of information processing, is incapable of accounting for much of the activity of the human brain, and can only consider human thought in an extremely limited way.

    Meme theory is concerned with the way information is transferred. To examine these issues, memeticists have chosen to focus on the information itself, treating humans as hosts who may be active to a greater or lesser extent in transmitting the information. It is the lack of emphasis on the actual activity of the human being with the information that dooms memetics to failure. Memeticists have adopted the view that information is independent of either its source or of its receiver, and can be effectively examined with little regard for either. The idea that one can examine the transfer of information without regard for the systems sending and receiving it has been challenged on a number of levels. Shuy (1993) argues, based on his linguistic training and experience as an expert linguistic witness at a number of trials, that such a position is a common misunderstanding jurors have about the way language works. Using examples from real criminal trials, Shuy demonstrates that people have the mistaken belief that they can examine verbal testimony in the absence of context because all of the necessary information is contained in the words spoken. This belief, Shuy argues, has led to wrongful convictions a number of times. Reddy (1979) argues that this inaccurate belief is based on the way the English language has developed, and refers to the mistaken idea that information is sent and received unaltered by the acts of sending and receiving as the *conduit metaphor.*


    Examining research on false memories will effectively demonstrate the difficulties of separating information from information processing. Roediger and McDermott (1995) presented participants with study lists of words that were associates of one nonpresented word. For example, one list contained the words "bed," "rest," "awake," and nine other sleep-associated words, but the word "sleep" was never presented. During later free recall tests, participants recalled the nonpresented words (e.g., "sleep") 40% and 55% of the time, in Experiments 1 and 2, respectively. Similar results were found using word recognition tests, and participants were highly confident that the words they had recalled were on the study lists. This finding of false memories using word lists has been replicated and extended by a number of researchers. Similar false memory data have been obtained using memory for sentences, eyewitness testimony, and childhood events. Experimental research on human memory has shown that people "remember" information that they never saw and events that never happened under a wide number of conditions and with a variety of testing methods. Payne et al. (1997) summarize their theoretical position on human memory: "the act of remembering involves the reperception of internal representations that are created from experiences with the world... these internal representations frequently are not separate and distinct from the sensory and perceptual processes that give rise to them."

    This description of human memory, while echoing that of Kolers and Roediger
    (1984) is clearly inconsistent with memetic ideas about information processing. People do not receive information and transmit it to others without processing and altering it in a way that is both highly sensitive to the environmental conditions at both the time the information is received and the time it is remembered, and highly dependent on the perceptual, attentional, and cognitive capabilities of those involved at both times. Given the memory research, it is far from clear to what extent we can meaningfully discuss information independently of the activities of the people involved in the process of transmitting it. Memeticists must demonstrate that they can account for the sensitivity of memory to the factors identified by experimental psychologists. They must also adequately deal with the numerous false memory phenomena, which are a powerful challenge to meme theory. Presumably the word "sleep" fits the vague criterion for memehood, given that, in this experimental paradigm, words are presented to participants one at a time, and participants are expected to recall and rate their confidence in each individual word. Yet this word, recalled by about half of all people, was never seen. It does not seem that we can reasonably view this information as having been transmitted-- who could have done so? In these and the other cases, it is better to view the memory as having been created. It is up to memeticists to challenge the dominant theory in experimental psychology-- that all memories are created in a similar manner to the false memories through active reconstruction of past experiences that are heavily dependent on environmental, perceptual, and cognitive factors whose impact varies at different times. Cognitive psychologists have developed powerful models of human memory that challenge memetic theory; it is up to memeticists to show that the experimental data have been misinterpreted.


    For the past 50 years, social psychologists have studied specifically how people form and change attitudes and beliefs. Hundreds of carefully controlled experiments have been performed examining the factors that affect whether a person will be persuaded by information (or "infected" to use memetic terminology), how lasting that persuasion might be, and whether the person will actually act in response to the information to which they have been exposed (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). One would think that this large body of research would form a much stronger starting point for memetic analyses than would an analogy to epidemiology. Yet, aside from a brief mention by Blackmore (1997), this work has been ignored by memeticists. Memeticists have neglected to consider virtually all of the experimental data, from both social and cognitive psychology, concerning information processing, and the behaviors based on this information processing, in favor of an inaccurate model of information transmission (the conduit metaphor) and an untested and underdeveloped analogy to the distantly related field of epidemiology.


    With regard to how information is transmitted with potential mutation and is subject to selective forces leading to differential survival, the writings of memeticists are about as vague as their attempts to define the meme. It is also not clear to what extent we can meaningfully discuss transmission of information (as opposed to reconstruction of information). Memeticists have also not done enough to differentiate memetic transmission of information from non-memetic transmission. It is known that humans can transmit information to each other that could not reasonably be considered memetic. For example, Russell, Switz, and Thompson (1980) showed that human menstrual cycles become synchronized through olfactory cues. Presumably there is some variance in the degree to which people's menstrual cycles become synchronized, but we would probably not want to say that this variability is evidence for mutation and differential survival of any particular menstrual cycle. It is up to memeticists to demonstrate that the information that they deal with is different, and this will prove difficult. Cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that learning and remembering are sensitive to environmental and perceptual factors, which are not considered in memetic analyses, and that most human thought is not likely to be memetic. They have also shown evidence for the recall of information never transmitted. Memeticists must show that, after accounting for these pieces of evidence and the psychological theories based on them, there is some form of discrete information left over that is subject to mutation (not merely variability) and differential selection (not based on perception, attention, or mental reconstruction of experience). In other words, they must demonstrate that, contrary to current psychological models, not all forms of information in the human brain are like the information discussed above before they can develop meaningful predictions and models of memetic transmission.

    I think Polichak makes a strong case that not all transmitted information consists of memes. To be successful, memetics must clearly demarcate memetic transmission of information from ordinary communication. When does human agency give way to memetic agency? When does the information become a thing-in-itself, capable of self-replication, as opposed to a passive element in human mentality?


    =============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see: http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit

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