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Survival Aesthetics IV: Be the Meme You Want to See in the World
What comes first, the habit or the breakthrough; how to get a dog to stop baring his fangs; pruning your social streams 
This essay is part of ongoing personal research on the notion of "survival aesthetics": the relationship between the individual and the collective. Here's a link to a brief overview of the project. I don't claim expertise, and so I invite you to join me in the exploration.

What Is a Meme?

"Primitive memory formed by trial and error died with the organism. With the evolution of complex brains, however, memory in the form of brain codes acquired the ability to skip from one brain to another, first by imitation as a shortcut to trial and error, and later, with language, as knowledge and information. When memory achieved portability, it became memes, bits of replicating information."
- Hoye Leigh, Genes, Memes, & Culture

A meme is a dense, repeatable, portable chunk of memory. It is a mantra that continually reminds us what we (rightly or wrongly) deem important for our own survival. 

A meme: a dog licking her pup repeatedly, or a cat snuggling behind another cat. According to psychologist Hoye Leigh, "the perception of licking by the pup results in memes, i.e., new neural connections and potentiation of existing ones that may represent, in homo sapiens terms, 'I am loved.'"

Another meme: a Daily Caller or ThinkProgress piece in your Facebook newsfeed, an article you probably won't read but will nonetheless reinforce the meme that "the other side is full of fascists."

Memes are patterns of neural connections, and according to Leigh, they "affect other neural connections to result in neurotransmitter release and affect genes. The affected genes, in turn, affect the individual’s perceptual bias and interpretation of life experiences in the future, and thus stress vulnerability or resilience."

The memes we repeat to ourselves and to others determine how we see ourselves and others. They determine if and how we: show affection, study, work, think, engage, converse, navigate, and handle emotions. And then they replicate.

Culture Is a System of Memes

Memes aren't trivial. A meme carries with it not just visceral memories, but also expectations, biases, and values. Imagine a stream of memes occurring all around. This collection is what we're subconsciously pulling from to figure out how to get on and get along in this uncertain world.

In our early years, family provides us with memes on what constitutes "life". But in the absence of (or supplemental to) family, whether by choice or by circumstance, we seek out memes in media, sports, art, books, urban spaces, quaint coffeeshops, and niche tribes. One could give this conglomerate source of influence a name: "culture".

The culture you occupy plays a huge role in how you perceive life and the subsequent decisions you make about it.

In New York City, the prevailing meme is materialism: the city's culture is broadly defined by the tension between Midtown glitz-and-glam and its defiant bohemian starving-artist peripheries. 

In San Francisco, the prevailing meme is utopia: the city is a breeding ground for cultural spaces emanating conflicting "change the world" technopaganism and "change yourself" mysticism.

Some cities use intellectualism as a driving/reactionary force (Boston), while others use power (DC), masculinity, stoicism, religion, etc.

But this isn't a one-way relationship: with your very existence, you are producing memes and reshaping the culture. You cannot escape from this responsibility. The people you run into, the media you choose to consume, the food you choose to eat, the transportation you choose to take, the block you choose to live on -- these are all feeding into the viscous stew of memes that we call culture.

Culture Change Is a War of Attrition (against Memes)

When a meme gets repeated enough, it decides to stick around. It grows to deepen its occupation of our inner value system. This is why "insights" often don't stick and why the things you know you should be doing remain neglected.

The neural connections formed through repetition are more powerful than any single piece of piercing insight. If we are sloppy about our consumption habits, our values are easily rattled and replaced without us even noticing it happening.

This is reminiscent of the first rule of getting in shape, which is to empty your apartment of bad snacks. A pantry filled with unhealthy food is a meme telling you what it is okay to consume when you're hungry and don't have time to cook. Replace the candy with nuts and healthy fats, and you've solved your problem. You change the meme by changing what it points to.

In the digital context, the bad snacks may be work emails -- Gmail might buzz your phone with the latest non-urgent but urgently-worded email in your inbox. This digital pantry is a meme telling you that allowing interruptions like these are conducive to you doing your best work. Replace the Gmail notifications with "Do Not Disturb" Mode on your iPhone, and you've solved most of the problem. You change the meme by changing how often it interrupts you.

Through a series of changes like these in your life, the culture of you and the environment around you begins to slowly change. The world changes its expectations of itself, as do you of yourself. So whether they occur online or in your office or the company you keep or the apartment you live in, the memes driving our daily lives deserve to be audited, reflected on, and reshaped.


Hope you enjoyed reading! This is a very difficult topic to condense into a single essay, so if you are confused or interested in reading more, I suggest the following books: The Shallows, Deep Work, Genes, Memes Culture, and Mental Illness, and The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Please share any thoughts/feedback/ideas, I'm always excited to read what you've got for me.

Happy Sunday and until next time.
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Ammar · 725 15th St, NW · Washington, DC, DC 20005 · USA

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