Have you ever had an “all-consuming” thought? It’s strange to describe thoughts as “consuming” anything, but some really do seem carnivorous. In the jungle of the mind, some thoughts thrive by devouring our attention and wiping out their competitors—the survival strategies of an alpha predator.
Other ideas lurk in the back of the mind, quietly but continuously feeding on our mental resources—psychological parasites. But whether a negative thought acts like a T-Rex or a tapeworm, the result is the same: a disruption of our mental equilibrium, leading to distraction, anxiety, and suffering.
Inside the human mind, the success or failure of a particular thought can be understood through meme theory. Meme theory uses natural selection and Darwinian evolution to explain how ideas, symbols, and stories spread through human culture.
Memes are ideas that, just like living things, can flourish, mutate into new forms, or go extinct. In this way, memes also compete and evolve inside the individual’s mind—these are our “internal memes.” (Further defined and explored in my columns, "Infohazard Warning: How Internal Memes Infect Your Brain" and "Why Did I Think That? Your Internal Memes.")
The thoughts that consume us, including those associated with OCD, depression, and trauma, often feel inescapable and unstoppable. But they only seem that way because they use specific, predictable strategies to exploit vulnerabilities in human psychology. These internal memes are very good at tricking you into repeating them, but they use the same tricks every time.
Try to examine your difficult thoughts scientifically, the way a zoologist might conduct an autopsy on a newly-discovered species. Which traits make the meme painful to think about? What strategies does it employ to lure you into repeating it? You’ll likely identify some of the following tricks.
First of all—the ideas that repeat aren’t necessarily good ones. Susan Blackmore observes, somewhat wryly, that mental resources are best used “practicing useful skills, or solving problems, or thinking through social exchanges so as to make better deals, or planning future activities. I have to say this does not seem to be plausible for the sorts of daft and pointless thoughts I tend to think about” (The Meme Machine).
The brain neglects some very obvious selection criteria when evaluating memes—criteria like utility, meaning, well-being, and truth. A meme only needs to fake positive qualities to be repeated, even if it’s actually useless, meaningless, unhealthy, or a straight-up lie.
Internal memes have plenty of other tricks “to appear more acceptable than they deserve to be,” as observed by Heylighen and Chielens in their paper “Cultural Evolution and Memetics.” “Self-justification means that the components of a memeplex mutually justify each other.” This can occur, for instance, in depressive thinking—“I’m a bad person because I do bad things” and “I do bad things because I’m a bad person” create a self-justifying loop.
“Self-reinforcement means that a meme stimulates its host to rehearse itself, e.g., by repeated study, meditation, prayer, etc. Intolerance means that a meme indoctrinates its host a priori to reject any potentially competing memes.” Blackmore, in The Meme Machine, elaborates on this: “Memes inside a memeplex survive better as part of the group… they form a self-organizing, self-protecting structure that welcomes and protects other memes that are compatible with the group, and repels memes that are not.”
Internal memes can fool us using “double-headed statements (one half is bound to be true of you) and ambiguous ones (read in what you like)” (The Meme Machine). They flatter our sense of individuality using “the Barnum Effect”—making suggestions you might hear from a carnival barker or a tarot reader, “statements that almost everyone will judge as true of themselves but not of others” (The Meme Machine). “Barnum” statements can be positive ("You look like someone with a lot of common sense") or negative ("Everyone else is happier than I am").
One last trick is intermittent reinforcement, a well-known psychological trap that reinforces behaviors if they’re randomly rewarded—so you might compulsively repeat a miserable thought because, every so often, it feels productive or reassuring.
Storytelling is a powerful and persuasive way of reinforcing information. Memorizing three random spots on a map is tricky, but a simple story—like “We left from there to come here but ended up elsewhere”—is much easier to understand, memorize, and recall. Stories organize information into a logical sequence of cause-and-effect; they create a historical context for events with backward-chaining; and they make future-oriented predictions and explore hypothetical situations. If meme takes the shape of a story, it seems that much more plausible and coherent.
Internal memes also draw power from our emotions. Negative emotional affects (fear, anger, sadness, and disgust) are more potent than positive ones, especially when they trigger partially-automatic emotional reactions.
“A little anger leads to a lot of anger, and leaves a huge impression” (Eckman, Emotions Revealed). “If consumption of a particular food is accompanied by gastrointestinal distress, even as long as twelve hours after consumption, an aversion to that food is developed” (Kelly, Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust).
“Pain and noise are biologically set to be signals that attract attention, and depression involves a self-reinforcing cycle of miserable thoughts” (Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow). Our social interactions can teach new emotional relations indirectly through our empathy with others.
Finally, internal memes can evolve from thoughts to behaviors, harnessing our motor systems and external environment (especially multi-sensory stimuli involving smell, taste, or touch). Problem-solving behaviors activate a variety of reinforcing functions, including cause-and-effect thinking and mechanical action, whether or not they actually solve our problems; ritual behaviors (including OCD) intermittently reward us with occasional, temporary reductions in negative affect. And every behavior gets easier with practice, as skill-building and experiential learning create new automatic behaviors—which strengthen related memes.
It’s ironic that the same evolutionary trait that allowed humans to become the dominant species on Earth—our intelligence—also makes us uniquely vulnerable to mental predators and parasites. No other animal suffers so intensely from thinking alone.
But thankfully, human intelligence also possesses the necessary traits to liberate itself from restrictive, negative thinking: self-awareness, flexibility, and resolve. Just as our ancestors invented tools to overcome their natural predators, we can invent and refine new psychological tools to overcome our negative—but predictable, and therefore manageable—thoughts.
You may also be interested in my columns, "Why Did I Think That? Your Internal Memes," and "Infohazard Warning: How Internal Memes Infect Your Brain"
Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2019.
Author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012.”
Read my Psychology Today blog: Triggered
Susan Blackmore. “Evolution and Memes: The human brain as a selective imitation device.” Cybernetics and Systems, Vol 32:1, 225-255, 2001, Taylor and Francis, Philadelphia PA
Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press, 1999
Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1st ed. 1976, 30th Anv. Edition 2006
Paul Ekman. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. 2nd edition. St. Martins, New York, NY 2007
Francis Heylighen. “What makes a meme successful? Selection criteria for cultural evolution.” CLEA, Free University of Brussels, Pleinlaan 2, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium
Francis Heylighen & Klaas Chielens. “Cultural Evolution and Memetics.” Encyclopedia of Complexity and System Science, 2009, pg. 5-6
Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY, 2011
Daniel Kelly. Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust. Bradford MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011