Waking from the Meme Dream
Paper presented at: The Psychology of Awakening:
International Conference on Buddhism, Science and Psychotherapy Dartington
7-10 November 1996
Also published in The Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism,
Science and Our Day-to-day Lives. Ed. G.Watson, S.Batchelor and G.Claxton;
London, Rider, 2000, 112-122
Wake up! Wake up!
Errrr, ummmm, grrrrggr, Oh yes, Im awake now. Wow, that was a weird
dream. I really thought I had to escape from the slurb, and it mattered
terribly to get to the cupboard in time. How silly! Of course, now
I see it wasnt real at all.
Wake up! Wake up!
do you mean, "wake up", Im already awake. This is real. This
does matter. I cant wake up any more.
Wake up! Wake up!
But I dont understand
- From what? And how?
are the questions I want to tackle today. From what are we to awaken?
And how? My answers will be "From the meme dream" and
"By seeing that it is a meme dream". But it may take me
some time to explain!
is a long history, in spiritual and religious traditions, of the
idea that normal waking life is a dream or illusion. This makes
no sense to someone who looks around and is convinced there is a
real world out there and a self who perceives it. However, there
are many clues that this ordinary view is false.
clues come from spontaneous mystical experiences in which people
"see the light!", realise that everything is one, and
go "beyond self" to see the world "as it really is".
They feel certain that the new way of seeing is better and truer
than the old (though of course they could be mistaken!).
clues come from spiritual practice. Probably the first thing that
anybody discovers when they try to meditate, or be mindful, is that
their mind is constantly full of thoughts. Typically these are not
wise and wonderful thoughts, or even useful and productive thoughts,
but just endless chatter. From the truly trivial to the emotionally
entangling, they go on and on. And whats more they nearly
all involve "me". It is a short step to wondering who
this suffering self is, and why "I" cant stop the
clues come from science. The most obvious (and scary) conclusion
from modern neuroscience is that there is simply no one inside the
brain. The more we learn about the way the brain functions the less
it seems to need a central controller, a little person inside, a
decider of decisions or an experiencer of experiences. These are
just fictions - part of the story the brain tells itself about a
self within (Churchland and Sejnowski, 1992; Dennett, 1991).
say there is no point in striving for an intellectual understanding
of spiritual matters. I disagree. It is true that intellectual understanding
is not the same as realisation, but this does not mean it is useless.
In my own tradition of practice, Zen, there is much room for intellectual
struggle; for example, in the cultivation of the "dont
know mind", or in working with koans. You can bring a question
to such a state of intellectual confusion that it can be held, poised,
in all its complexity and simplicity. Like "Who am I?",
"What is this?" or (one I have struggled with) "What
is also a terrible danger in refusing to be intellectual about spiritual
matters. That is, we may divorce our spiritual practice from the
science on which our whole society depends. If this society is going
to have any spiritual depths to it, they must fit happily with our
growing understanding of the workings of the brain and the nature
of mind. We cannot afford to have one world in which scientists
understand the mind, and another in which special people become
I make no apologies for my approach. I am going to try to answer
my questions using the best science I can find. We seem to live
in a muddle that we think matters to a self that doesnt exist.
I want to find out why.
Darwins Dangerous Idea
is one scientific idea which, to my mind, excels all others. It
is exquisitely simple and beautiful. It explains the origins of
all life forms and all biological design. It does away with the
need for God, for a designer, for a master plan or for a purpose
in life. Only in the light of this idea does anything in biology
make sense. It is, of course, Darwins idea of evolution by
implications of natural selection are so profound that people have
been awe-struck or maddened; fascinated or outraged, since it was
first proposed in The Origin of Species in 1859. This is
why Dennett (1995) calls it Darwins Dangerous Idea. Sadly,
many people have misunderstood the idea and, even worse, have used
it to defend indefensible political doctrines which have nothing
to do with Darwinism. I therefore hope you will forgive me if I
spend some time explaining it as clearly as I can.
you need for natural selection to get started is a replicator in
an appropriate environment. A replicator is something that copies
itself, though not always perfectly. The environment must be one
in which the replicator can create numerous copies of itself, not
all of which can survive. Thats it.
it really be that simple? Yes. All that happens is this - in any
one copying generation, not all the copies are identical and some
are better able to survive in that environment than others are.
In consequence they make more copies of themselves and so that kind
of copy becomes more numerous. Of course things then begin to get
complicated. The rapidly expanding population of copies starts to
change the environment and that changes the selective pressures.
Local variations in the environment mean different kinds of copy
will do well in different places and so more complexity arises.
This way the process can produce all the kinds of organised complexity
we see in the living world - yet all it needs is this one simple,
elegant, beautiful, and obvious process - natural selection.
make things more concrete lets imagine a primeval soup in
which a simple chemical replicator has arisen. Well call the
replicators "Blobbies". These blobbies, by virtue of their
chemical constitution, just do make copies of themselves whenever
they find the right chemicals. Now, put them in a rich chemical
swamp and they start copying, though with occasional errors. A few
million years go by and there are lots of kinds of blobbies. The
ones that need lots of swampon have used up all the supplies
and are failing, so now the sort that can use isoswampin instead,
are doing better. Soon there are several areas in which different
chemicals predominate and different kinds of blobby appear. Competition
for swamp chemicals gets fierce and most copies that are made die
out. Only those that, by rare chance, turn out to have clever new
properties, go on go on to copy themselves again.
properties might include the ability to move around and find
the swampon, to trap isoswampin3-7 and hang onto it,
or to build a membrane around themselves. Once blobbies with membranes
appear, they will start winning out over free-floating ones and
super-blobbies are made.
few million years go by and tricks are discovered like taking other
blobbies inside the membrane, or joining several super-blobbies
together. Super-dooper-blobbies appear, like multi-celled animals
with power supplies and specialised parts for moving about and protecting
themselves. However, these are only food to even bigger super-dooper-blobbies.
It is only a matter of time before random variation and natural
selection will create a vast living world. In the process billions
and billions of unsuccessful blobbies have been created and died,
but such a slow, blind process produces the goods. "The goods"
on our planet includes bacteria and plants, fish and frogs, duck-billed
platypuses and us.
appears out of nothing. There is no need for a creator or a master
plan, and no end point towards which creation is heading. Richard
Dawkins (1996) calls it "Climbing Mount Improbable". It
is just a simple but inexorable process by which unbelievably improbable
things get created.
is important to remember that evolution has no foresight and so
doesnt necessarily produce the "best" solution.
Evolution can only go on from where it is now. That is why, among
other things, we have such a daft design in our eyes, with all the
neurons going out of the front of the retina and getting
in the way of the light. Once evolution had started off on this
kind of eye it was stuck with it. There was no creator around to
say "hey, start again with that one, lets put the wires
out the back". Nor was there a creator around to say "Hey,
lets make it fun for the humans". The genes simply do
the fantastic process of natural selection we can see how our human
bodies came to be the way they are. But what about our minds? Evolutionary
psychology does not easily answer my questions.
example, why do we think all the time? From a genetic point of view
this seems extremely wasteful - and animals that waste energy don't
survive. The brain uses about 20% of the bodys energy while
weighing only 2%. If we were thinking useful thoughts, or solving
relevant problems there might be some point, but mostly we don't
seem to be. So why cant we just sit down and not think?
do we believe in a self that does not exist? Someone may yet explain
this in evolutionary terms, but at least superficially it appears
pointless. Why construct a false idea of self, with all its mechanisms
protecting self-esteem and its fear of failure and loss, when from
the biological point of view it is the body that needs protecting.
Note that if we thought of ourselves as the entire organism there
would be no problem, but we dont - rather, we seem to believe
in a separate self; something that is in charge of the body; something
that has to be protected for its own sake. I bet if I asked you
"Which would you rather lose - your body or your mind?"
you wouldnt spend long deciding.
many other scientists I would love to find a principle as simple,
as beautiful and as elegant as natural selection that would explain
the nature of the mind.
think there is one. It is closely related to natural selection.
Although it has been around for twenty years, it has not yet been
put fully to use. It is the theory of memes.
A Brief History of the Meme Meme
1976 Richard Dawkins wrote what is probably the most popular book
ever on evolution - The Selfish Gene. The book gave a catchy
name to the theory that evolution proceeds entirely for the sake
of the selfish replicators. That is, evolution happens not for the
good of the species, nor for the good of the group, nor even for
the individual organism. It is all for the good of the genes. Genes
that are successful spread and those that arent don't. The
rest is all a consequence of this fact.
course the main replicator he considered was the gene - a unit of
information coded in the DNA and read out in protein synthesis.
However, at the very end of the book he claimed that there is another
replicator on this planet; the meme.
meme is a unit of information (or instruction for behaviour) stored
in a brain and passed on by imitation from one brain to another.
Dawkins gave as examples; ideas, tunes, scientific theories, religious
beliefs, clothes fashions, and skills, such as new ways of making
pots or building arches.
implications of this idea are staggering and Dawkins spelt some
of them out. If memes are really replicators then they will, inevitably,
behave selfishly. That is, ones that are good at spreading will
spread and ones that are not will not. As a consequence the world
of ideas - or memosphere - will not fill up with the best, truest,
most hopeful or helpful ideas, but with the survivors. Memes are
just survivors like genes.
the process of surviving they will, just like genes, create mutually
supportive meme groups. Remember the blobbies. In a few million
years they began to get together into groups, because the ones in
groups survived better than loners. The groups got bigger and better,
and a complex ecosystem evolved. In the real world of biology, genes
have grouped together to create enormous creatures that then mate
and pass the groups on. In a similar way memes may group together
in human brains and fill the world of ideas with their products.
this view is correct, then the memes should be able to evolve quite
independently of the genes (apart from needing a brain). There have
been many attempts to study cultural evolution, but most of them
implicitly treat ideas (or memes) as subservient to the genes (see
e.g. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981; Crook, 1995; Durham,1991;
Lumsden and Wilson, 1981). The power of realising that memes are
replicators is that they can be seen as working purely and simply
in their own interest. Of course to some extent memes will be successful
if they are useful to their hosts, but this is not the only way
for a meme to survive - and we shall soon see some consequences
he first suggested the idea of memes Dawkins has discussed the spread
of such behaviours as wearing baseball caps back to front (my kids
have recently turned theirs the right way round again!), the use
of special clothing markers to identify gangs, and (most famously)
the power of religions. Religions are, according to Dawkins (1993),
huge co-adapted meme-complexes; that is groups of memes that hang
around together for mutual support and thereby survive better than
lone memes could do. Other meme-complexes include cults, political
systems, alternative belief systems, and scientific theories and
are special because they use just about every meme-trick in the
book (which is presumably why they last so long and infect so many
brains). Think of it this way. The idea of hell is initially useful
because the fear of hell reinforces socially desirable behaviour.
Now add the idea that unbelievers go to hell, and the meme and any
companions are well protected. The idea of God is a natural companion
meme, assuaging fear and providing (spurious) comfort. The spread
of the meme-complex is aided by exhortations to convert others and
by tricks such as the celibate priesthood. Celibacy is a disaster
for genes, but will help spread memes since a celibate priest has
more time to spend promoting his faith.
trick is to value faith and suppress the doubt that leads every
child to ask difficult questions like "where is hell?"
and "If God is so good why did those people get tortured?".
Note that science (and some forms of Buddhism) do the opposite and
once youve been infected with these meme-complexes they are
hard to get rid of. If you try to throw them out, some even protect
themselves with last-ditch threats of death, ex-communication, or
burning in hell-fire for eternity.
shouldnt get carried away. The point I want to make is that
these religious memes have not survived for centuries because they
are true, because they are useful to the genes, or because they
make us happy. In fact I think they are false and are responsible
for the worst miseries in human history. No - they have survived
because they are selfish memes and are good at surviving - they
need no other reason.
you start to think this way a truly frightening prospect opens up.
We have all become used to thinking of our bodies as biological
organisms created by evolution. Yet we still like to think of our selves as something more.
We are in charge of our
bodies, we run the show, we decide which ideas to believe in and
which to reject. But do we really? If you begin to think about selfish
memes it becomes clear that our ideas are in our heads because they
are successful memes. American philosopher Dan Dennett (1995) concludes
that a "person" is a particular sort of animal infested
with memes. In other words you and I and all our friends are the
products of two blind replicators, the genes and the memes.
find these ideas absolutely stunning. Potentially we might be able
to understand all of mental life in terms of the competition between
memes, just as we can understand all biological life in terms of
the competition between genes.
I want to do now, finally, is apply the ideas of memetics to the
questions I asked at the beginning. What are we waking up from and
how do we do it?
Why is my head so full of thoughts?
question has a ridiculously easy answer once you start thinking
in terms of memes. If a meme is going to survive it needs to be
safely stored in a human brain and passed accurately on to more
brains. A meme that buries itself deep in the memory and never shows
itself again will simply fizzle out. A meme that gets terribly distorted
in the memory or in transmission, will also fizzle out. One simple
way of ensuring survival is for a meme to get itself repeatedly
rehearsed inside your head.
two tunes. One of them is tricky to sing, and even harder to sing
silently to yourself. The other is a catchy little number that you
almost cant help humming to yourself. So you do. It goes round
and round. Next time you feel like singing aloud this tune is more
likely to be picked for the singing. And if anyone is listening
theyll pick it up too. Thats how it became successful,
and thats why the world is so full of awful catchy tunes and
there is another consequence. Our brains get full up with them too.
These successful memes hop from person to person, filling up their
hosts' minds as they go. In this way all our minds get fuller and
can apply the same logic to other kinds of meme. Ideas that go round
and round in your head will be successful. Not only will they be
well remembered, but when you are next talking to someone they will
be the ideas "on your mind" and so will get passed on.
They may get to this position by being emotionally charged, exciting,
easily memorable or relevant to your current concerns. It does not
matter how they do it. The point is that memes that get themselves
repeated will generally win out over ones that dont. The obvious
consequence of this fact is that your head will soon fill up with
ideas. Any attempt to clear the mind just creates spare processing
capacity for other memes to grab.
simple logic explains why it is so hard for us to sit down and "not
think"; why the battle to subdue "our" thoughts is
doomed. In a very real sense they are not "our" thoughts
at all. They are simply the memes that happen to be successfully
exploiting our brain-ware at the moment.
raises the tricky question of who is thinking or not thinking. Who
is to do battle with the selfish memes? In other words, who am I?
Who am I?
suppose you can tell by now what my answer to this one is going
to be. We are just co-adapted meme-complexes. We, our precious,
mythical "selves", are just groups of selfish memes that
have come together by and for themselves.
is a truly startling idea and, in my experience, the better you
understand it, the more fascinating and weird it becomes. It dismantles
our ordinary way of thinking about ourselves and raises bizarre
questions about the relationship of ourselves to our ideas. To understand
it we need to think about how and why memes get together into groups
as with blobbies or genes, memes in groups are safer than free-floating
memes. An idea that is firmly embedded in a meme-complex is more
likely to survive in the memosphere than is an isolated idea. This
may be because ideas within meme-groups get passed on together (e.g.
when someone is converted to a faith, theory or political creed),
get mutual support (e.g. if you hate the free-market economy you
are likely also to favour a generous welfare state), and they protect
themselves from destruction. If they did not, they would not last
and would not be around today. The meme-complexes we come across
are all the successful ones!
religions, astrology is a successful meme-complex. The idea that
Leos get on well with Aquarians is unlikely to survive on its own,
but as part of astrology is easy to remember and pass on. Astrology
has obvious appeal that gets it into your brain in the first place;
it provides a nice (though spurious) explanation for human differences
and a comforting (though false) sense of predictability. It is easily
expandable (you can go on adding new ideas for ever!) and is highly
resistant to being overturned by evidence. In fact the results of
hundreds of experiments show that the claims of astrology are false
but this has apparently not reduced belief in astrology one bit
(Dean, Mather and Kelly, 1996). Clearly, once you believe in astrology
it is hard work to root out all the beliefs and find alternatives.
It may not be worth the effort. Thus we all become unwitting hosts
to an enormous baggage of useless and even harmful meme-complexes.
of those is myself.
do I say that the self is a meme-complex? Because it works the same
way as other meme-complexes. As with astrology, the idea of "self"
has a good reason for getting installed in the first place. Then
once it is in place, memes inside the complex are mutually supportive,
can go on being added to almost infinitely, and the whole complex
is resistant to evidence that it is false.
the idea of self has to get in there. Imagine a highly intelligent
and social creature without language. She will need a sense of self
to predict others behaviour (Humphrey, 1986) and to deal with
ownership, deception, friendships and alliances (Crook, 1980). With
this straightforward sense of self she may know that her daughter
is afraid of a high ranking female and take steps to protect her,
but she does not have the language with which to think "I believe
that my daughter is afraid ... etc.". It is with language that
the memes really get going - and with language that "I"
appears. Lots of simple memes can then become united as "my"
beliefs, desires and opinions.
As an example, lets consider the
idea of sex differences in ability. As an abstract idea (or isolated
meme) this is unlikely to be a winner. But get it into the form
"I believe in the equality of the sexes" and it suddenly
has the enormous weight of "self" behind it. "I"
will fight for this idea as though I were being threatened. I might
argue with friends, write opinion pieces, or go on marches. The
meme is safe inside the haven of "self" even in the face
of evidence against it. "My" ideas are protected.
Then they start proliferating. Ideas that
can get inside a self - that is, be "my" ideas, or "my"
opinions, are winners. So we all get lots of them. Before we know
it, "we" are a vast conglomerate of successful memes.
Of course there is no "I" who "has" the opinions.
That is obviously a nonsense when you think clearly about it. Yes,
of course there is a body that says "I believe in being nice
to people" and a body that is (or is not) nice to people, but
there is not in addition a self who "has" the belief.
Now we have a radically new idea of who we
are. We are just temporary conglomerations of ideas, moulded together
for their own protection. The analogy with our bodies is close. Bodies
are the creations of temporary gene-complexes: although each of us
is unique, the genes themselves have all come from previous creatures
and will, if we reproduce, go on into future creatures. Our minds
are the creations of temporary meme-complexes: although each of us
is unique, the memes themselves have come from previous creatures
and will, if we speak and write and communicate, go on into future
creatures. Thats all.
The problem is that we don't see it this
way. We believe there really is someone inside to do the believing,
and really someone who needs to be protected. This is the illusion
- this is the meme-dream from which we can wake up.
Dismantling the Meme-Dream
There are two systems I know of that are
capable of dismantling meme-complexes (though I am sure there are
others). Of course these systems are memes themselves but they are,
if you like, meme-disinfectants, meme-eating memes, or "meme-complex
destroying meme-complexes". These two are science and Zen.
Science works this way because of its ideals
of truth and seeking evidence. It doesnt always live up to these
ideals, but in principle it is capable of destroying any untruthful
meme-complex by putting it to the test, by demanding evidence, or
by devising an experiment.
Zen does this too, though the methods are
completely different. In Zen training every concept is held up to
scrutiny, nothing is left uninvestigated, even the self who is doing
the investigation is to be held up to the light and questioned. "Who
After about 15 years of Zen practice, and
when reading The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau, I began working
with the koan "Who...?". The experience was most interesting
and I can best liken it to watching a meme unzipping other memes.
Every thought that came up in meditation was met with "Who is
thinking that?" or "Who is seeing this?" or "Who
is feeling that?" or just "Who...?". Seeing the false
self as a vast meme-complex seemed to help - for it is much easier
to let go of passing memes than of a real, solid and permanent self.
It is much easier to let the meme-unzipper do its stuff if you know
that all its doing is unzipping memes.
Another koan of mine fell to the memes. Q.
"Who drives you?" A. "The memes of course." This
isnt just an intellectual answer, but a way into seeing yourself
as a temporary passing construction. The question dissolves when both
self and driver are seen as memes.
I have had to take a long route to answer
my questions but I hope you can now understand my answers. "From
what are we to awaken? From the meme dream of course. And how?"
"By seeing that it is a meme dream".
And who lets the meme-unzipper go its way?
Who wakes up when the meme-dream is all dismantled? Ah, theres
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