Memes, Consciousness and Mind Hacking – Part 2 (The Magus Syndrome)

So quick precis of last week: I referred to memes, an evolved method of communicating complex information between human beings, and suggested that they can be an ideal mechanism for hacking human consciousness (by bypassing regular mechanisms and reinforcing themselves through neurobiological reward). I also pointed out that human consciousness is distinctly limited, and that the perceived self is simply an artefact of its interface to the larger mind. Last, I suggested that the best way to communicate ideas to the conscious mind is through story-telling, and that metaphors (themselves a form of story) are a great way of taking a complex idea and making it understandable by relating it to direct experience.

I also introduced the idea of “good” and “bad” transmissible memes. I used compassion as an example of a “good” meme, and religion as an example of a “bad”. Obviously, this distinction is pretty black and white (and if there’s one thing that humans like to do, it’s to reduce complex notions to simplistic, bi-polar answers). So today I’m going to expand on how memetic hacking has been used to control and limit humans, and then I’ll look at the memes we ought to be propagating and why.

The concept of a sticky meme is important here – I gave a brief example last week as to why religion is so attractive. To reiterate briefly, a sticky meme needs to be: (i) easy to understand (at least the basic notions), but also (ii) needs to contain a more complex payload. It also needs to be (iii) attractive (in order to improve uptake), (iv) be able to bypass consciousness (so that it can’t be easily held up to rational scrutiny) by appealing to deep, hard-wired human needs (like connectedness, inclusion, and tribal orientation) and, last, (v) it needs to provide a neurological reward to reinforce the meme and ensure its transmission. In other words it needs to “feel right” which will engender: a feeling of superiority (“I know something that makes me feel good, so it must be important and therefore I’m better than you”), the desire to spread it to others (“this is awesome because it feels both good and right – I have to let others know about it”), and the likelihood that you’ll rationalise your behaviour post-hoc (“they can’t understand, but I do, so the fact that I did something that I’d otherwise consider unacceptable doesn’t matter in this context“).

Religion is a great example of a sticky meme (could also be called a contagious or viral meme – talk about an “opiate of the masses”). But throughout history there have been many variants on the religion meme including secret societies, private clubs, political parties, sporting clubs, companies, the military, etc. Actually, the religion meme can be applied to pretty much any human organisation that promotes a feeling of exclusivity and superiority, without its members being able to explain rationally why their group is better, and who will use their feelings of superiority as an excuse to proselytise and, or to hurt others because they (as infidels) don’t believe the same things they do. I’m going to go ahead and give this concept a name: the Magus Syndrome (and for any of you who haven’t read John Fowles’ masterpiece “The Magus”, go and read it – for those of you that have, you’ll get it).

That’s pretty scary. It seems as a species, the design flaws (for want of a better term) in our consciousness make us highly vulnerable to transmissible (sticky) memes, resulting in some awful outcomes. In fact, the religion meme is only one of many sticky memes that are used as a form of viral warfare to control and manipulate us. Let’s look at our desire for new stuff. Apple, as an example, have perfected the art of using infection memes to ensure we buy their products. The Apple meme involves the transmission of the desires for connectedness and belonging, and is backed up (the more complex payload) by fears of inadequacy and lower tribal orientation. The iPhone as a physical product is designed to make sure you become neurologically bonded to it: you need to stroke it to make it work and it provides instant reinforcement for that connection. As a meme, it allows for feelings of superiority and a deep connection to the brand. OK, so the Apple meme is just a complex variant of the religion meme.

But in actual fact, whenever someone is trying to make us want to buy something, they’re using memetic hacking. Car ads provoke feelings of security and connectedness, as well as provoking fear (by, ironically, promoting safety). SUV ads go further by selling the notion of freedom and escape. All of these wants are hard-wired at a deep level, and so go straight past our conscious GUI and provoke a neurological reaction. And the more sophisticated the concept, the more it needs to be dumbed down to a basic level (to ensure the stickiness or contagion of the meme) – something we see far too often in politics. Because humans have a hierarchy of needs, there’s plenty to choose from – sort of like a hacking pyramid, except that we never need to go much above family/belonging.

OK – it’s not my intention to be all conspiracy theory here. Personally, I hate conspiracy theories – they’re another example of a sticky meme. What I want to do here is illustrate why what we think we believe (often fervently) is actually the result of contagious information that has hacked out consciousness. This is important, because we can’t make choices in our lives (to live as Human 2.0) without being aware of the progenitors of our actions, and if we don’t understand our real values, then we can’t act in line with those values. I’m not sure if I have a way of inoculating people against Magus Syndrome – intelligence and education might help, but aren’t always effective – and I’m going to have to give this a lot more thought before I can come up with anything effective. In the meantime, how about we look at the potential bright side: contagious positive memes that are really good for us and for society, why they’re awesome, and how to spread them…

Here’s a very basic list:  compassion (I’ve already talked a lot about this and will continue to do so), collaboration, transparent communication, moderation and, perhaps, more dogs (or ponies, whichever takes your fancy).

Why are these awesome? Because they are direct antonyms to the religion meme. They encourage humans to interact in ways that aren’t about oppression, dominance, destruction or greed. They’re about helping humans work together in ways that are more likely to ensure our ongoing survival and that of the Earth and the species we share this planet with.

Now for the million-dollar question: how do we make them sticky and transmissible? Honestly, I have very little idea. The religion meme (and its variants) is so entrenched (and so contagious) that it’s going to be difficult to replace it with something more effective. Some ideas:

1) Use the same structure: simple message with complex payload, bypass consciousness, aim at hard-wired needs, provoke neurological reward. For example, within the religion meme is the Jesus meme (which is actually pretty cool when not overlaid by the religion meme) with great messages like turning other cheeks, loving neighbours, not being a dick, etc.

2) Use the same message, but work on upping the reinforcement for the desired behaviours and reducing reward for the downside. For instance, again the religion meme can be great when it comes to accepting others, but crap when it comes to accepting others not infected by the same meme. Somehow we need to enhance the reward for acceptance while reducing the reward for bigotry. Not sure how…

3) Use the same surface structure to smuggle in a different underlying payload. This is a bit like 1 & 2 (above) combined. Here we’d use a variant of the religion meme (maybe the secret society meme) to make a certain way of acting (such as being compassionate) highly desirable, and then reinforce the hell out of it through ongoing hacking along the same route.

And that’s where I get stuck; so, for the first time, I’m going to ask you for your help – please leave comments below with your ideas for sticky, positive memes, and mechanisms for their transmission! Help me infect the world with positive options through memetic hacking…

Finally, please don’t take this as a political manifesto. I’m presenting these ideas without a political agenda and am aware of the complexities (and contradictions) inherent in taking this stance. What I’m talking about is trying to find ways for humans to stop being angry monkeys and to aspire to actions that are dominated by the neocortex and, most importantly, that are the product of rational choices, rather than an unfortunate infection (religion, herpes of the soul)…

I’ve got some good ideas for next time, so hope to see you next week.

2 Replies to “Memes, Consciousness and Mind Hacking – Part 2 (The Magus Syndrome)”

  1. After five years, this analysis is even more relevant. For example, the use of social media to send memes to manipulate target populations has been weaponized by various governments and special interest groups. “Truth” seems to have become only a theoretical concept these days. Lacking the critical thinking skill described by E.M. most people cannot distinguish a weaponized meme from a statement of factual reality.

    So what is needed first and foremost is better education in How To Think. if the next generation can be taught the basics of Defence Against the Magus, perhaps there is a chance for a better world. Otherwise, we can only hope that enlightened benign AI’s will take the reins soon and protect us from ourselves.

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