Pros: Well-defined terms, clear explanations
Cons: Chapter on disinfection could have used a little more detail
Rating: 4 out of 5
There is a theory that memes (“units of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds”) , like viruses, exist to replicate themselves and so must infect as many people as possible. This idea draws from ideas in the fields of psychology, biology, and anthropology, and Richard Brodie’s book is based on the work of several scientists including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Douglas Hofstadter. He explores not only what memes are (from the perspective of various fields) but why they are so effective at replicating and infecting us. Brodie also examines how these viruses can be created, and how, knowing about these and how they’re created, we can disinfect ourselves and lead the lives we’ve always wanted to lead.
When I found Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme I found it in the Psychology section, which is fine, except that it’s classified as a self-help book. Not knowing that, I read it thinking it was a psychology book. As such it is a little disappointing, but as a self-help book it is quite well written. Brodie spends a good deal of time defining the terms in use, such as memes and evolution. This is important, because there are several approaches to the science of memetics, and so there are multiple ways of defining the term “meme”. The one thing that he didn’t define well, though, was the term “virus of the mind”. Until he started using the term later on in the book, I had thought that the two were the same thing. A little more clarity on that point would have been helpful.
One of the other things that Brodie does well is explain how memes use hot buttons that humans have been evolutionarily programmed for to grab hold of the mind. Two of the examples he use deal with how politicians and advertisers use words and images to create messages that tap into our primal instincts in order to get us to buy products or gather votes. I mean, I knew that sex was used in advertising (Brodie uses the example of beer commercials) but I had never consciously realized that infomercials tapped into what used to be food-gathering opportunities (Get it now before it’s gone!). I guess I had just figured that humans were evolved past the point of being so often driven by “primitive” instincts.
Brodie also provides several examples of the ways in which memes are created to encourage people to act a certain way. Mission statements, for example, are used by companies to get everyone working towards a common goal, and to prevent wasted time in the workplace. He also mentions religion, which is an excellent example because so often people don’t question why they believe their religion since often they were brought up with it. Brodie argues that religion should be something that one accepts after having thought about it and making sure that the religion aligns with one’s own values.
After all of the information about memes, what they are, how they work, and how they are used, Brodie then goes on to explain how to “disinfect” oneself from the memes that they have been exposed to over the course of a lifetime. But this is one area where the book is frankly rather weak. Strategies include deciding on a life’s purpose for oneself, quieting the mind, and viewing both sides of conflict. These are all good ideas, but they don’t really give one an idea of how to change the detrimental thoughts that one is actually having. There are several strategies that psychologists use in those situations, and none of those are mentioned. Brodie has an excellent start, but it needs a few more pieces to give a more whole picture.
This was a well-organized and well-written book about the ways that thoughts and ideas can change and affect the ways that we think and behave, and it gives some excellent insights into the basic thought patterns that can drive behavior. By demonstrating some of the ways in which memes can be used to, for lack of a better word, manipulate people into behaving along predetermined paths or spend their money on certain products, Richard Brodie provides a timely wake up call. Only through thinking through the messages that we are being bombarded with and choosing which ones we want to subscribe to can we hope to lead happy, fulfilling lives.