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Can We Measure Memes?


Can We Measure Memes?

Adam McNamara. Front Evol Neurosci.


Memes are the fundamental unit of cultural evolution and have been left upon the periphery of cognitive neuroscience due to their inexact definition and the consequent presumption that they are impossible to measure. Here it is argued that although a precise definition of memes is rather difficult it does not preclude highly controlled experiments studying the neural substrates of their initiation and replication. In this paper, memes are termed as either internally or externally represented (i-memes/e-memes) in relation to whether they are represented as a neural substrate within the central nervous system or in some other form within our environment. It is argued that neuroimaging technology is now sufficiently advanced to image the connectivity profiles of i-memes and critically, to measure changes to i-memes over time, i.e., as they evolve. It is argued that it is wrong to simply pass off memes as an alternative term for "stimulus" and "learnt associations" as it does not accurately account for the way in which natural stimuli may dynamically "evolve" as clearly observed in our cultural lives.

Keywords: evolution; fMRI; functional connectivity; meme; mirror neurons.


Figure 1
Figure 1
An i-meme (internal representation of a meme) comprises the neural network which encodes it. (A) Basic structural components of non-requisite neural substrate architecture are auditory, vision, touch, proprio-sensory, taste, olfaction, and internal states (limbic). Communicative motor output is the neural substrate for the motor action required to communicate the meme and is the only pre-requisite component for a meme. All other components do not inherently require a representation within their domain. The basal ganglia (motor execution) and working memory are example processes unlikely to be part of an i-meme but to act upon them. (B–F) Possible neural substrate architectures for some exemplar i-memes, doorbell, ammonia, the irritating sound a personal computer makes when encountering an error, the gesture for victory. For simplicity, working memory and basal ganglia components are not incorporated.

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