Re: Sticky Memes

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Tue 24 Jan 2006 - 20:56:53 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: Sticky Memes"

    OK, I'm having another shot at replying because I think I have a better handle on what's going on now. See what you think.

    Price, Ilfryn wrote:

    >>Religion is almost as sticky as language. But I think lots of other
    >>things are this sticky too. Some of the things that stick to children
    >>are representational systems (RSs) like natural languages; others are
    >>memes (i.e. the information that is represented by those RSs) like
    > In my interpretation the 'representational system' (the word or signifier) is being replicated and hence is the meme (or primary
    > non genetic replicated). The information represented by a given signifier (the signified) can vary with time and context. (This is
    > of course simplistic and atomistic and shorthand for emergence in more complex representational systems and I am ignoring gestures
    > and tools for now).
    > Acquisition of (normally) a 'mother tongue' or first language seems to be innate and there are claims which I have not tracked to
    > source that once acquired it blocks or impedes acquisition of some others. Along with language we acquire some level the
    > collective 'representedness' of a particular family / group / culture.

    I've looked around to see what I can find out about language acquisition. Any linguists on the list might like to correct my more glaring errors.

    There seems to be some debate about what factors are involved in easing the learning of a second language. I suppose there's a sense in which it's meaningless to say that your first language blocks others, as by definition we can't have a second language until we've got a first . . .
      But I suspect the thing you and I are both sort-of remembering is more to do with pronunciation than language acquisition per se: that our vocal equipment learns to pronounce certain sounds and we perhaps underestimate what vast amounts of practice were involved in this. So when we try to pronounce the unfamiliar sounds of another language it feels impossible and we don't work at it hard enough: e.g. the "h" sound for non-English speakers, the "s" or "v" sound for non-Spanish speakers, etc.

    Anyway that's just speculation on my part. But what I did find that fascinated me in a memetic context was a paper by Ulrike Jessner of the University of Innsbruck, "Metalinguistic Awareness in Multilinguals: Cognitive Aspects of Third Language Learning", Language Awareness 8:3, pp201-9, which you can see at (or the Google html version for those who prefer it is

    The argument, which struck me as highly convincing, is that becoming bilingual raises metalinguistic awareness. And this, in conjunction with the more efficient learning strategies of an experienced language-learner, makes it easier to learn subsequent languages.

    For the relevance of which, see below.

    >>Here's a list of some of the most sticky memes. [When I say 'parental'
    >>I mean 'mostly parental but, depending of the degree of exposure to
    >>influence outside the family, possibly also social'.]
    >>Parental attitudes: to whether smacking is acceptable; to the importance
    >>of fashion; to racism; to sex; to money; to work; to education; to
    >>marriage . . . the list is almost endless.

    >>Parental beliefs in matters of: religion; politics; the role of Santa
    >>and the tooth fairy in childhood; etc.

    > Discarding is virtually impossible post 6 years old for at least the primary language and probably difficult for a range of others
    > from the trivial (e.g. simple jingles) through a range of others, so there appear to be two axes stickiness (the inverse of
    > discardibility) and something like significance
    >>In every case the ability to do this will be enhanced by early exposure
    >>to the alternatives:
    > Agreed, and an interesting research area. I strongly suspect primary language gives us 1 fairly universal reference point for
    > stickiness. Let us call it for a thought experiment 100 Distins. How would we assess the relative stickiness, and or 'triviality'
    > of alternatives and how would we relate relative stickiness to context (e.g. earlier discussion of closed religious or Elvisian
    > communities)

    Here is a possible explanation for all this, which has the virtue of being very simple in memetic terms. Are the stickiest memes simply those which do not have any competitors?

    (By "stickiest" here I mean the ones with the most lasting impact on our behaviour and beliefs, rather than just best-remembered ones.)

    So when you live in a community that is closed with respect to a given meme or meme-set, the primary allele (i.e. the one you get first) will be immensely sticky because there's no competition. And if you go for long enough without being exposed to the alternatives then you will have become more and more attached to that primary allele and will put up strong emotional resistance to any alternatives that you do encounter later. Or to put it another (and compatible) way the primary allele will have become so firmly embedded in your existing set of memes that it will be immensely resistant to competition.

    Natural language, as you say, does seem to be the stickiest of all. Perhaps because language is (necessarily - it being about being able to communicate with each other) the respect in which communities tend to be the most closed of all.

    This explanation seems also to work for languages of all kinds, and for parental attitudes and beliefs - including Santa, because although children can suss the ontology for themselves, the related behaviour turns out to be much stickier in a society that is essentially closed to its alleles.

    And then the point from Jessner's paper, above, kicks in because as soon as you do encounter alleles you begin to metarepresent - to reflect on the similarities, choose between them, look for further alternatives, etc. Having encountered one allele you become more open to others: it opens your mind to the fact that there could *be* alternatives. It opens the doors to competition.

    What d'you reckon?


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