Electric Dreams

Dream Memes

Richard Catlett Wilkerson 

(Electric Dreams)  (Article Index)  (Search for Topic)  (View Article Options)

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2000 January). Dream Memes. Electric Dreams 7(1). Retrieved July 14, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams  

As anthropologists pick around the digs of ancient civilizations and cultures, they find that there are some ideas we have which have carried down from one generation to another, while others seem to fade away into obscurity. Like DNA, some ideas seem to contain instructions and patterned information capable of building and maintaining themselves, of replicating and mutating, of adapting and evolving.

The notion of social evolution has been explored by various research groups and theoretical perspectives. Connecting the natural selection processes of genetics with that of culture has not met with much success. Yet from some perspectives, they are quite similar, including exploration and transformation of an information space through variation, selection, and replication.

Recently, the notion of self-replicating ideas has been revived with the advent of the Internet in the term "memes" (pronounced like "seams" with an "m"). The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and the field of study has blossomed in the hopes of uniting cultural evolution with a pragmatic concept in the way biological evolution has been united by genetics. Since memes offer a synthetic framework for understanding how mental representations are generated, organized, stored, retrieved, and expressed at the level of the individual but carried by the culture, they will be of great interest to dream workers and dream theorists. This will occur at several levels. One will be what dreams offer meme theory. That is, how much of dreaming is involved in the replication and organization of ideas and their emotional importance. Another level will be the Dream Memes in theory and content. In content, we are talking about the dream themes that Calvin Hall explored in his content analysis, the Universal dream themes of Patricia Garfield and the archetypal mythologies carried forward by the Jungians. Theoretical dream memes include all the notions about dreams, about what they mean and don't mean, what kinds of access they give us, and all the folklore and spiritual, scientific and psychological views. As to the degree that dream ideas obtain the status as cultural memes is a questions to be explored and answered. Does a child, for example, gain the ability to fly in a dream from talking about this with other children? To what degree to we obtain dream flight on our own, and to what degree is it a dream meme?

Liane Gabora notes that there are conditions for a pattern to be considered as evolutionary. I have added a few dream meme notes to each of these.

1.A pattern of information (a state within a space of possible states). These are usually referred to in dreams as stories, narratives and events.

2. A way to generate variations of the pattern (explore or transform the space). In dreams, this is called theme-variation.

3. A rationale for selecting variations that are adaptive - tend to give better performance than their predecessors in the context of some problem or set of constraints (a fitness landscape applied to the space).

In dreams, the evolution of dream themes occurs, but more slowly in Western Cultures. In non-industrial cultures, dreams are given a higher value and explored more. Here, evolution of the dreaming is clearer. This evolution has been occurring in some segment of Western Culture as in lucid dream training, preparing dream themes before going to sleep and complex psycho-spiritual interactions that can evolve in the adult dreamer.

4. A way of replicating and transmitting (or amplifying, as molecular biologists refer to it) the selected variations.

Here there are different kinds of dream transmissions. The telepathic and psychic transfers are generally to far apart and rare to see evolution. The transmitting of dream stories from one person to another is the most common. Transmitting and practicing various kinds of dreamwork, or repression of dreamwork, is also part of the replication and transmission process. As mentioned earlier, it is unclear how much a dream meme is replicated during childhood and how much occurs at later developmental stages.

However, to be of significant theoretical value, memetics must unfold the processes by which experience in the world turns into new memes in our brains, and address how memetic novelty is expanded further through creative processes.

"The memetic approach involves relinquishing our focus on the individual, and concentrating instead on the meme as the object of a second evolutionary process that makes cognition possible. This perspective can feel unnatural and disorienting but it discloses population-level phenomena that would otherwise go unnoticed because they are not readily detected through introspection." Gabora

in-dreams vs in-culture. which is what is where is both?

"We bite the bullet and consider anything that can be the subject of an instant of experience, to be a meme. The category `meme' now includes not only obviously transmittable ideas like `Be good or you will go to Hell', but everything from a particular experience of vibrant `redness', to a realization of a shorter route to work, to a feeling of dread associated with a teacher's posture or facial expression. This may strike some readers as outrageous, but it doesn't really make things as unwieldy as it might seem to at first glance. For the price of this added complication we gain a bridge that connects memetics with phenomena like perception, body language, planning, deductive reasoning, emotion, categorization, analogy... the stuff of the social and cognitive sciences. It may be our only viable direction. A theory of mind that can account for myth and freestyle dance, not to mention rapid personality assessment, is not easily achieved. " Gabora

"Our concept of meme can be clarified by invoking Kanerva's notion of the focus - that part of the mind in which sensation (either external or internal e.g. hunger) and stored memory interact to produce a stream of experience. The states of the neurons that comprise the focus determine the content and experiential quality of an individual's awareness. One can think of a meme as a pattern of information that is or has been encoded in an individual's focus. It can be subjectively experienced as a sensation, idea, attitude, emotion, or combination of these, and it can direct implementation by the motor apparatus. " Gabora

"Brains Select Memes that Satisfy Biological and Cultural Needs "

By looking a dream memes this way, we wonder about the dreams that fall outside of the bodily need fulfillment. That is, what needs are being fulfilled by flying, walking through walls, talking to the dead, seeing someone other than ourselves in mirrors and going to school naked?

In this sense, we can talk about the needs of the Self to find itself, the need to explore and play with options, to entertain itself, even to scare itself.

Memetically, another way of looking at this is that every time we are ready to take on a new matrix or larger set of memes, cracks in the surface of our usually patterns of perception occur.

"Variation-inducing operations restructure conceptual space and thus affect the memetic fitness landscape. Much as the evolution of rabbits created ecological niches for species that eat them and parasitize them, the invention of cars created cultural niches for gas stations, seat belts, and garage door openers. As one progresses from infanthood to maturity, and simple needs give way to increasingly complex needs, the stream of thought acquires the properties of a chaotic or strange attractor, which can be viewed as the formation of crevices in the original limit cycle. The landscape is fractal (i.e. there is statistical similarity under change of scale) in that the satisfaction of one need creates other needs - every crevice when examined closely reveals more crevices." Gabora

As Jung might say, when our world-view gets too small, we see it is just an egg shell for rebirth into the larger self.

These cracks in the dream show us on one hand where the connection between material consensus reality ends and a different corporeal existence begins. One might say that dreams are the way we practice learning how to live in the upcoming virtual omnisphere.

"An endpoint of a cultural evolution trajectory turns out to be not just a point in multidimensional space, but a set of points with their own fitness metric - a `micro-landscape' in its own right. So although the memetic fitness landscape loosely follows the biological fitness landscape, there are places where it deviates, and this effect undoubtedly becomes more pronounced throughout an individual's lifetime. This means that the potential for meme diversity, though constrained by host need, is open-ended. " Gabora

A use of meme in dreaming may be to allow us to see what kinds of unwanted memes are attaching themselves to our system and staying out of normal consciousness. When we watch a commercial, this meme-attachment process happens. Products try to attach sexual encounter memes, riches memes, prowess memes and other desirable but completely unrealistic memes to commercial products. Normally these are not in our focus, but may emerge in connected colonizations of dream themes.

Richard Wilkerson

More on Memes:

A "meme," of course, is an idea that functions in a mind the same way a gene or virus functions in the body. And an infectious idea (call it a "viral meme") may leap from mind to mind, much as viruses leap from body to body.
Meme, Counter Meme
Mike Godwin Wired 2.10 oct 1994 http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.10/godwin.if.html

Memes, unlike genes, do not come packaged with instructions for their replication; they rely on the pattern-evolving machinery of our brains. We tend to replicate memes that satisfy needs - biological needs like food, shelter, and sex, or needs that contribute less directly to survival of self and progeny. These include the need for love, and the need for a coherent internal model of the world, something we can call upon whenever a situation is too complicated for our hardwired instincts.
Wired 5.06 June 1997 Memes: The Creative Spark
by Liane M. Gabora

A unit of cultural transmission. The archetypal meme "meme" was launched by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 mind grenade The Selfish Gene.

Derived from a Greek root meaning "to imitate," meme describes how ideas mimic the behavior of genes, propagating not from body to body, Dawkins wrote, but "by leaping from brain to brain." Memes range from scientific hypotheses to slang words, TV commercials to conspiracy theories. A fertile meme, Dawkins further explained, parasitizes the brain "in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell." Once you're infected, you tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on, just like the old Jhirmack shampoo ad (itself a long-living meme).

Apart from its commercial applications, studying these "viruses of the mind" has emerged as a serious academic discipline, spawning evolutionary approaches in fields such as political science and cognitive psychology and heady periodicals like the Journal of Memetics.

Still, the most celebrated memetic engineers are usually advertisers. Their job, after all, is to create brand recognition, making meme warfare akin to brain-side product placement. The biggest battleground: television.

"It's not called 'programming' for nothing," says author Douglas Rushkoff, whose 1994 book Media Virus! further popularized the notion of memes. "The hardwiring of human beings together through a global interactive media has led to the mass transmission of memes, which, instead of infecting individuals one by one, attack the entire cultural organism."
Wired 6.02 feb 1998