Are you hosting a memetic Parasite?

Do all of your thinking patterns serve you? Is it possible that a lot of your thoughts are actually harming you, and doing so in a sneaky way?  One perhaps non-obvious consequence of seeing memes as organisms is the concept of a memetic parasite.   Our brains are hosts for memes, and it may be worth asking: are the memes in your brain serving you by making your life better? Or are you serving the memes in your brain, by helping to propagate them, at your own expense?

Some memes propagate by making their hosts’ lives better and richer.  These memes likely travel slowly, as it can take a person a while to improve their life. And yet these memes can have excellent longevity – there are many thousand-year old stories people still tell themselves, because these stories help them live more fulfilling lives.  These are symbiotic memes.

One such symbiotic meme is the idea that your mind is a garden, and with continuous effort, you can make it into a paradise by weeding out negative thoughts, and focusing your attention on the positive aspects of your life and the things you can control.  This meme doesn’t spread rapidly; it takes a long time for it to grow and transmit from host to host.  Whenever I’ve met someone who seemed to be both happy and successful,  and asked them their secret,  they have said something along these lines.  I don’t know anyone that seems genuinely happy with their life who doesn’t believe something like this.

Other memes propagate by making their hosts unhappy, and using that unhappiness to trigger the communication that propagates them: Did you know lizard people control the world? It’s true, and it explains why your life has been hard and unsatisfying. 

Of course, we know this is absurd. It’s easy for us to immunize ourselves against silly memes like this, right? That’s ridiculous. Absurd. Only any idiot would believe such a thing – but you and I, of course, we are much too smart to believe in absurd conspiracies.  Certainly there is no need for us to inspect our own thoughts, because we’d never believe something absurd. That’s for other people. Not us.

The above beliefs are both examples of memetic parasites. More intelligent people can play host to far more sophisticated parasitic memes.  Educated adults are less likely to believe that lizard people rule the world, but we’re probably more likely to believe that we are unhappy because we see important truths that others miss out on.  There are plenty of popular memes which encourage us to persist believing this is the case. These memes convince us to reject outside information that might challenge their hold over our brains.  Anything which challenges the poison narratives of these memes causes those memes to produce a threat response. This protects the meme, but it harms us.  We might tell ourselves we are unhappy because of factors XYZ in the external world, but I think it’s pretty clear this is the meme talking.

How can I be so sure of this? Isn’t there a lot of awful things in the world? Of course there are. And it’s likely the case that you aren’t paying attention to the majority of them, because your peers aren’t talking about them, your favorite infotainment products (i.e. newspapers) don’t talk about them, and your social media feed isn’t hammering you with them. 

Don’t you care about all the children sold into sexual slavery? What about the tens of thousands dying from drug overdoses, the twenty thousand suicides a year in the US alone? My guess is you probably don’t think about these problems that often because they are not all over social media.  Since the rate of human misery remains more or less constant,  and constant negativity doesn’t produce a dopamine signal nearly as much as a fresh, new, smaller-scale outrage, you aren’t likely to hear about the drumbeat of misery that has been present for most of human history.

Most humans still poor and living undignified lives, trying to escape grinding misery. Science and trade reducing this misery at an agonizingly slow pace, have made very much progress but still have far to go”

This could have been the headline every day for the past few hundred years, but most people would probably get bored of that.

There are likely more slaves today than at any point in the history of the world. The percentage is likely lower, but exponential growth is tricky like that.  Is dwelling on the many people who are enslaved going to help you free them? Nope.  It just prevents you from being more productive in your career, and possibly making more money, which you could be donating to save lives. 

Would you save a child’s life right now, if you could?   The cost is only a few thousand dollars or so. It’s embarrassingly cheap to save a human life.

The more I focus on my own life, the more successful I am, the more money I make, and the more I can donate to killing parasites with science.  You are unlikely to hear about parasitic worms on your social media feed. This is because parasites that kill children slowly – at a predictable, steady rate – don’t routinely produce upsetting images that trigger a feeling that our society is broken by those bad people. Worms that degrade children’s cognitive function, primarily in poorer places, are not news. They are old. They are merely the same kind of misery that has long engulfed much of humanity.  The New York Times will not write about them daily. Your tweets cannot stop these worms, but your donations are extremely effective at killing them.

I used to spend a lot of time on social media. I would see things in my news feed that would upset me, and as a result, I would comment on these posts. I would attempt to reason with people on the internet about complex situations, where each of us has tons of feelings, little hard data, and even less ability to effect any change. Why?

One answer would be that “I care about the world and when I see things that are wrong I get upset, which is good and reasonable.” But that’s the parasite speaking.

Another, probably more accurate answer would be that my brain was hosting memetic parasites, which hijacked my time and attention in order to help themselves propagate. 

I took a hiatus from social media in 2017, and noticed after a while that I did feel better.  For the next few years I went off and on in terms of my usage of social media, and noticed that on the days I paid attention to the news and the outside world, I felt terrible. I deleted all my social media accounts in 2020. I don’t miss it at all. You might object that I’m shirking my responsibility to the world, by ignoring the problems around me. My wife would tell you to please shut the hell up, because I’m not a good husband or good Dad on the days I pay attention to the news.  Listening to her has made my life much better than it was.  I can now help lots of people, instead of needing their help. Shouldn’t you listen to her?  I think she’s onto something.

Once I realized it was these ideas that are bothering me –  not the things in reality they are pointing me to – i decided to stop ingesting ideas that make me feel upset over things i can’t control.   The more I disconnect from the news, the less I feel a need to care about things that are largely beyond my control, and don’t have nearly as much affect on my life as I used to think they did.  It’s like watching professional wrestling: I chuckle at how much I used to buy into it. 

Now I’m back to my work. I want to save more lives this year than I did last year.

6 thoughts on “Are you hosting a memetic Parasite?

  1. That was a wonderful article, and an important concept from someone who found wisdom through suffering.

    The central idea reminds me of the quote by Jung: “People don’t have ideas; ideas have people.”

    It’s pithy, and maybe not entirely true, but it’s something we see every day, and can all resonate with.

  2. Nice application of memetic theory. Not a generally popular subject. I was introduced by reading Blackwell (2000) last year. Will you share your bibliography?

    1. I picked the idea up from various blogs – definitely haven’t read any academic work on the subject aside from skimming a summary of the selfish gene by Dawkins. Would you recommend the Blackwell book?

  3. This argument (that one should accumulate beneficial thought patterns instead of true thought patterns) is strikingly similar to a riff Jordan Peterson had during his heyday about whether one should believe in religion (that one should believe in a religion because believing in it has therapeutic results for you, even if you intellectually know it’s false.) He argued that the longevity of religious beliefs (millenia scale) was evidence of their adaptive value, and that they should be considered pragmatically true. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUEiPpDiaj4&t=141s Harris summarizing)

    This also strikes me as a psychedelic take, that a completely detached but benevolent observer would choose to place beliefs in your mind which advantage your general well-being, and remove beliefs, no matter how true they are, which get in the way of the organism’s long term goals.

    I’m happy to see this (beneficial to spread) portrayal of belief as a tool or technology being broadcast here, but arguments against truth are inherently an uphill battle. The most accessible secular argument that parallels this is “don’t waste time arguing with people on the internet” (https://xkcd.com/386/) but that doesn’t capture the magnitude of the extrapolated point that “you host many thought patterns which are wasting **so much** of your time that it is impacting your life outcomes.” Perhaps your analogy to doomscrolling is the most direct link to draw between self-selected behavior patterns and palatably negative life outcomes.

    1. I think arguments against believing something only because it’s true are pretty easy to make, but people reject them for emotional reasons.

      You could memorize the phone book, but you’re not going to, because that would be a waste of time. This proves the point that _merely_ being true is insufficient reason to believe something. I don’t think happiness and well being _require_ us to believe falsehoods – but it might be the case that simple falsehoods which motivate behavior that makes you happier are much cheaper to communicate than sufficiently detailed understandings of the truth.

      From what i can tell, reasoning with people in order to change their minds is basically a waste of time. I write in order to make things clearer – for myself and other people. If some people find that persuasive, hey, i guess that’s cool. I’ve found that my life improves a lot from highlighting certain patterns of my behavior that aren’t serving me, and then pruning them out. It sounds like obvious advice, like ‘stop hitting yourself.’ But man, in practice, that turns out to be much easier said than done. And that’s my goal – to help people who already know, at some level, they are hitting themselves learn techniques for doing less of it. Asking myself if a thought is a parasite triggers a disgust response; asking myself “do i need to think about this now” isn’t nearly as effective.

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