This week is going to be a bit speculative. As you’re probably getting used to, I write about what’s been on my mind lately. Often, I get an idea and jot it down, and then it grows over the next few months until it’s more fully formed – that’s what’s been going on for me and memes and consciousness.
For those of you new to the word, a meme is a way of transferring information through society. It can be an idea, an action, a technology, or a behaviour, and is transmitted within and between cultures, often “virally”. The idea was coined by Richard Dawkins, who developed the concept to explain how complex information (more complex than can be transmitted biologically) is distributed in human culture. Meme transmission occurs through exposure, the greater the exposure, the greater the transmission. In the modern world of instant, mass communication, it’s very easy for memes to spread.
Memes are, essentially, programmed units of cultural information, spread through human interaction. Throughout history, memetic transmission has been responsible for a lot of human change – good, bad and indifferent. Any major shift in human thinking, from Christianity, to the Renaissance, to Marxism is the outcome of an idea taking root in a large number of human minds, with a resultant effect. Of course, much memetic information exchange is banal or puerile: LOL Cats being a particularly gruesome representation of how viral information can downgrade our consciousness.
But today, I want to focus on two things that (I believe) are really important for humans, especially if we want to become Human 2.0: memetic hacking for human consciousness upgrades, and the limitations of human consciousness as a mechanism for these hacks.
So first, let’s look at human consciousness. A while back, I wrote about how our notions of self are largely illusory – that, in fact, our sense of self is little more than a collection of scripts that are context activated. I suspect that what we experience as consciousness is a similar construct – a functional illusion that allows us to operate in a linear world. Throughout human history, there’s been a lot of speculation about consciousness. My philosophy is a bit rusty, and I don’t pretend to be a philosopher, but if we look at recent advances in neuroscience and psychology, we can make some interesting speculations about what’s going on…
We now know that the human brain is stupendously complicated and complex. Old notions that cognitive activity is limited to neuronal firing and synaptic transmission have given way to understanding of secondary neurotransmission, gene switching, and glial cell integration. More radical thinkers are proposing that the brain is composed of cortical stacks that allow quantum computing. This computing power does pretty amazing things, especially when we understand that the nervous system doesn’t end at the brainstem, but continues throughout our bodies. There’s even large bundles of neural tissue in our hearts and guts; yup, a brain in our intestines that regulates the massively complex cellular machinery associated with digestion. From a motor-control perspective, we have a cascade of hierarchical expert systems that control complex movement; from a command and control centre, we have a series of semi-autonomous systems that operate down to a very low-level (way outside of conscious experience) and that allow us to do amazing things at remarkable speeds (unless we try to take conscious control – more on that later).
At the other end of the spectrum we get the experience we call consciousness. We all know it – we live in it every day – and, frankly, it’s a bit crap. We have a lousy information buffer (that allows us to hold only 7±2 items at a time for about 20 seconds), an atrocious attention span, a variable sense of self, and a “mind” that is a constant victim to distraction – from the world (or its limited sensory representations), or from internal events like cognitions and emotions. In fact, it could be argued that what we perceive as “us” is little more than a GUI to the larger computing power of the brain: much the same way as your computer screen is showing a representation of the billions of calculations occurring within your computer in a way that allows you to interact with it, consciousness is a limited interface to the complex machinery of your nervous system.
Let’s think about this for a minute. By measuring brain activity, we know that most actions that we believe we’ve initiated have actually already occurred before we’re consciously aware of them. For instance, when you move your mouse to scroll down this page, your motor control centre has sent the command to your fingers milliseconds before you thought about initiating the action. In other words, even though you thought “you” were moving the mouse, the part of you that thinks of itself as “you” was only informed of this after the event. This illusion of self makes you think that you were in control. Chances are it’s simply an artefact that evolved to allow us to operate in a world that requires a sense of linear time for us to function, especially when the only way we can communicate is through straight-line processes such as spoken or written language (parsed through the conscious information buffer and processed in real-time by more complex operations, and then piped back to us – but only for long enough to allow us to react consciously (i.e., the short-term memory buffer)).
Put simply, what you perceive of as “you” is a hyperdistractable, dumbed-down interface.
In my role as a psychologist I’m constantly amazed at how our conscious selves constantly screw up our performance. Our thoughts intrude and distract us, our emotions overwhelm us to the point where our limbic systems take over our behaviour (see my post Spanking the Inner Monkey) – resulting in an even dumber, dumbed-down brain and, amazingly, the arrogance of consciousness asserts itself to try and take over expert systems that are perfectly functional until we stuff them up. Every time we cock-up something we know full well we can perform flawlessly (through thousands of hours of practice (i.e., programming)), it’s because we overthink and try to take conscious control. This is despite the fact that consciousness is horribly slow (seconds rather than microseconds) – kind of like trying to control a modern jet fighter with an abacus.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Despite its limitations, human consciousness has several things going for it: we can choose what to pay attention to, it’s particularly good at using metaphors, and it’s an interface to higher functioning. This provides a great environment for hacking.
Now, come back with me to memes (or packets of transmissible information). The best memes (if by best we mean most effective) are the most transmissible, which means they need to be attractive and “sticky”. They’re also digestible, meaning that we can absorb them easily and, if they’re really effective, they carry a complex payload that is disguised in a really simple idea. Last, they need to bypass consciousness and stimulate embedded functioning, so that we are rewarded neurologically, and therefore motivated to spread the meme to others. Religion is probably one of the most successful memes for all of these reasons: it usually presents with the simple idea of a benevolent and omnipotent being who can make our decisions for us, but is also embedded with a lot of complex information (like control, subservience, and guilt) that can be used to manipulate. By making us feel wanted, safe, and connected, this payload bypasses consciousness and rewards us with dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. Because it “feels right” (i.e., “faith”) we are strongly motivated to spread the meme to others (and throughout history have happily justify the atrocities committed through this transmission).
Still with me? I need to introduce one more thing and then we’ll get to the crux. A little while back I mentioned that consciousness is good with metaphors. What I meant is that we are good at communicating concepts via metaphor – by translating more complex notions into something we can relate to directly, they become much more understandable (we also use analogy and simile). For instance, I’ve been using computer systems analogies throughout this blog to illustrate the concept of consciousness. Similarly, in therapy, I often use metaphor to help people “make room” for their emotions (by visualising them as physical objects that they can manipulate). In doing so, I’ve hacked past their consciousness, allowing them to access and control their limbic systems.
So when we combine a useful meme (like compassion), with a metaphor that makes it understandable, we can potentially use consciousness as a mechanism for programming the state without the tediousness of conscious interference. All we need to do is use consciousness to pay attention, and then use metaphors to relate to the meme to direct experience (so its attractive and can initiate a neurological reward). I’ll talk more about this next time.
One of the best metaphors for consciousness hacking I’ve come across recently (thanks to Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow), is the notion of a “human interface device”. Imagine that you’ve got a control box in front of you that has four sliders on it. They’re labelled “angry-delighted”, “sad-happy”, “aroused-revolted” and “curious-disinterested”. If you look carefully, each of them resolves down to a series of sub-sliders for fine tuning (the various complexities of human emotion). Now imagine that, at will, you can tweak those dials to an ideal human state – like compassion. It would take some fiddling but, with practice, you’d be able to optimise your emotional state for any given requirement, and rapidly moderate any extremes that interfered with your functioning.
In fact, with practice anyone can master this particular metaphorical interface. Typically, there’s no way you’d be able to consciously modify your emotional state, but with a little hacking you can override limitations and access the master control panel.
That’s enough for now. There’s a lot more in this though so, in Part 2, I’ll extend these ideas with my take on how memetic hacking is used for the manipulation of society and the hoodwinking of the modern world, by hacking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’ll also look in more depth at the types of memes that we should be spreading or working on developing.