Re: memetics-digest V1 #1468

Date: Sat 31 Jan 2004 - 02:31:30 GMT

  • Next message: Lawrence DeBivort: "Message for Michael Lissack"

    >>Danny is of the neurons in the mind school:
    >>"I think when referring to memes, we actually are
    >>referring to a pattern in the brain that can be
    >>transferred to another person via translation to
    >>language or some other symbolic representation, and
    >>that can then be transmitted from the second person to
    >>a third person without losing much informational
    >>content (copying fidelity).... So a meme is an
    >>abstract concept that can survive
    >>transmission/translation from one brain to another. A
    >>successful meme is one that does so frequently."

    Is this an "engram" argument? If so, there are problems: Lashley's (1950) thirty-year research agenda suggests that memes cannot be "a [distinct] pattern in the brain". Lashley found that the brain is a learning machine, with all areas acting as worthy substitutes for any other area; lesions reduce learning in proportional amounts (i.e., more destruction of brain, greater complexity of task --> more disruption).

    For the sake of being self-referential, Scott Chase had a number of cogent comments on this topic in late 2001:

    (Note also that Scientologists like engrams. If you ever wanted proof that Scientology was "not truth" -- and, therefore, "unsustainable" under my earlier comments about "long-term validity" and "short-term credibility" -- see the official Church of Scientology page about engrams at From the perspective of Lashley's findings, despite Tom Cruise's "apparently credible" endorsement, Scientology is necessarily bunk.)

    If a meme is not an engram, although I agree that some piece of the meme must live in the brain (since mind and brain are one), then a meme -- under the definition -- is necessarily not the equivalent of "a [distinct] pattern in the brain". However, that being said, I think you could probably argue fairly convincingly that the action of a single meme in one brain could be measured... is this not what we do when we infer psychological significance from physiological signals? (John Cacioppo might have something to say about this, although I'm not sure if he would favour the memetic approach.)

    Don't we tread rather closely to turning memetics into a form of modern dualism? We're talking quite literally about brain processes that exist -- in part -- outside the brain. (Yes, yes: they're only potentials... but they still act on the mind.) While I support the idea that "meaning" lives in the interaction between situation and self, I am uncomfortable with the implication that this extends the mind beyond the brain and into the ether....

    I grant that "meme as actor" has a physiological influence that will be determined by the equipment of the individual who receives and decodes the memetic message, leading to patterns of brain activity that could be considered engrammatic-ish in the individual. But if memes can affect the physical world, and aren't simply "ideas", then where do we draw the line? (And a line must be drawn!)

    Cacioppo, J. T., Lorig, T. S., Nusbaum, H. C., & Berntson, G. G. (2004). Social neuroscience: Bridging social and biological systems. In C. Sansone, C. C. Morf, & A. T. Panter (Eds), The Sage Handbook of methods in social psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Available online at

    Lashley, K. (1950). In search of the engram. "Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology, 4":454-482.

    >>copying fidelity has NOTHING to do with meaning
    > We truly speak different languages. Because in *engineering* language if
    > the copying fidelity of a transmission path gets too bad no meaning gets
    > through at all. Someone could be telling me I won the lotto, but if all I
    > hear on my cell phone is _SCRAWWWK_ the meaning failed in transmission
    > because of poor fidelity.

    What is a "misunderstanding" if not the failed transmission of meaningful intent / intended meaning? I'm not an engineer but, having worked with several over the past few years, I am a strong supporter of clear communication.

    [Kenneth van Oost:]
    >>> Not only he [Bruce] is chopping populations (where a memetic
    >>> process could emerge) into credible... and non-credible
    >>> individuals, ...he argues that their behaviour should
    >>> (NEED to) be credible in the first place! That troubles me
    >>> What is a credible individual_ an intellectual or someone
    >>> working the rice- fields of Cambodia !?

    [Jeremy Burman:]
    >> There are many different definitions of "credible". In this case, I
    >> think Bruce is bang-on. Let me explain why.

    [Kenneth van Oost:]
    > Yes I see your point and it is well taken, but my initial concern still
    > stands!
    > in the end, who are the credible people !?

    Credibility is a function of past success, or apparent success. Therefore, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, "Credibility is as credibility does, or appears to do." Credible people are those who set expectations and then consistently meet or exceed them, people who you might consider worthy of your parents' attentions in addition to your own. Credibility implies "low risk".

    In the stock market, risk is measured by (among other things) volatility. A stock with a long history of consistent returns that never deviate from its apparent course -- a stock with low volatility -- is considered predictable, safe, boring. (The popular term for these stocks is "blue chip".) They have been proven by their past behaviour to be investments in which you could stash your money and have a reasonable expectation that the same amount will be there tomorrow. That's why government treasury bills (T-bills) define the "risk- free" rate of return: the government is a credible issuer of debt, meaning that they will pay you back if you buy in to their plans. That's also why it's such a catastrophe when governments default on loan payments (see, for example, the demise of Long Term Capital Management, as described by Roger Lowenstein in "When Genius Failed" --

    Investments in smaller companies are made in a similar way: 60% of the investment decision is based on the "credibility" of the management team. Investors ask the same kinds of questions as an American might ask about a potential future Democratic candidate: Does this potential team include people who have proved themselves in similar situations? Do they have the ability to face down future challenges? Are they, relative to everyone else to whom you might give your support, low-risk? (Aside: I'm not sure why this idea hasn't been brought over to economic theory yet but I'm working on it.)

    Risk and reward are linked: the lower your credibility (i.e., the higher your risk), the less someone will invest in your perspective because they cannot rationally expect you to bring them a sufficiently high return (reward) to balance what they might get if they invested somewhere else.

    To be truly credible, you ought to have special or unique knowledge resulting from some position of respect or authority that you have earned as a result of your past credible actions. Lawyers are credible sources of information in matters of law, doctors in medicine, professors in their fields of expertise. People who come with credentials from sources you trust are, by association, credible. Past experience with a person also makes them credible: a friend isn't likely to do something to hurt you. But this is where things break down. This is where "apparent credibility" begins to play a role.

    As beings who have evolved to interact with a world of far less complexity than what goes on in stock markets, we use heuristics -- rules of thumb -- to simplify our understanding of the world. This can result in "inefficient" attributions of credibility (e.g., through the halo effect). This is also how I'm going to tie this discussion into my earlier mention of Scientology, since that seems to be the en vogue topic around here.

    Tom Cruise left the Catholic Church for Scientology because it offered him something he perceived as being valuable. Perhaps he did this because Mimi Rogers, whom he married shortly thereafter (i.e., a credible source), converted him. Or perhaps he did this because he was disillusioned with Christianity and wanted something spiritual that also seemed rational. But, either way, he literally took Scientology's ideas to the bank, as they took him to the cleaners (which is likely, given what the German government has been saying)... But Cruise's decision to mortgage his immortal soul wasn't irrational from his perspective: there was some kind of cost-benefit analysis that came out in favour of leaving one "church" for another. However, this isn't what happens when Cruise talks about Scientology: People believe him because he's beautiful (Halo effect) and because they feel they know him
    (prosocial relationship). Decisions made on that basis have nothing to do with rationality, but with dreams....

    Tom Cruise isn't worth listening to because he "knows stuff". But we listen anyway. Tom Cruise has apparent credibility, enough that we're willing to overlook his questionable beliefs so long as we can gaze instead at his rock- hard abs.

    How far does our willingness to suspend disbelief go?

    Judging by our armchair method of measuring meme-ness, Tom Cruise is a better generator of memes (2,130,000 pages) than Richard Dawkins (105,000), Charles Darwin (791,000), and David Bowie (973,000) but not as good a meme generator as Britney Spears (4,470,000), Shakespeare (5,920,000), or the concept of Evolution (16,100,000).

    While this does return some of my faith in humanity (of course Shakespeare and Evolution are important sources of memes!), it disturbs me that David Bowie should rank so low.

    > What is a credible behavior?

    Consistency is king.

    Jim Collins' (1994) study of the successful habits of visionary corporations suggests that you must stay true to your core values as you stimulate progress toward some "big hairy audacious goal". In other words, as long as you are oriented to the same goal, your behaviour will be consistent and -- as long as everyone knows what effect that has on what you say -- you will be a credible source of information in matters relating to your expertise.

    > how credible must it be?

    What is the acceptable level of risk for your investment? How much are you willing to lose?

    Every example I might suggest highlights something important: they all include aspects of the unknown. Every decision one makes is based not on all the information known in the universe, but what one understands. One makes assumptions based on past experience and then follows what is reasonable.

    Yet, in the case of Tom Cruise's influence, what happens if all you know is that "Mission: Impossible" is cool?

    > How is [credibility] measured !?

    Look at the bond market: in order for someone to buy a non-government bond, the issuer must pay a higher interest rate. All else being equal, the lower the "credibility" of the issuer, the higher the interest rate must be for someone to buy in.

    Jeremy Burman

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