Memetic Viruses

Currently reading (i.e., listening) to Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and just came across some really interesting concepts on the ride home today.

Firstly, he talks about how emotions can be contagious and the mechanism by which we can “infect” those around us.  It’s fascinating how the brain picks up on and even duplicates incredibly subtle, subconscious cues.  (It suddenly strikes me that the way a yawn is catchy probably has something to do with this)  And I was reminded of a fun book I read quite a while back by Neal Stephenson, entitled Snow Crash.  It’s so hard to sum up what makes the book so fun in just a few words, but the part that I’m reminded of is that a large part of the premise has to do with contagious memes, analagous to a computer virus, that run rampant.  There’s, of course, much more to it – and it’s hilariously creative.  I really enjoy Stephenson… in fact, if you haven’t read it yet, I’d strongly recommend Cryptonomicon, by him as well… (I liked it better than Snow Crash)

Secondly, Goleman is mentioning how when we are in tune with someone, mentally, we subconsciously mimic their actions and when a pair of individuals are having a moment of rapport it can be apparent to those watching.  And yet, when you consciously attempt to recall the same behavior and try to mimic someone’s behavior without that rapport, it feels forced and actually increases tension.  That, of course, is pretty obvious to most folks… who every likes to see someone copying them?  Even kids get irritated with it (though they frequently take it to the extreme).  But back to my point – I was reminded of a scene in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray falls for Andy MacDowell and they have a wonderful evening together, only to have it all go away the next day.  And then…. he spends the next several (or, I don’t know, hundreds???) of days trying to recreate that moment of rapport, only failing – because you can’t create it consciously, it only manifests when you really are in-tune with that other person.  You can’t force it.

Love that movie!  Could watch it again and again! (yep, I know)  😉

All this rapport and shared behavior also apparently influences spouses to a high degree – no surprise there.  But what was interesting was the connection between triggering muscle movements and the firing of neurons in the brain and the parallelism of thought patterns.  So this is an underlying cause of that statement you both make at the same time, or when one person thinks of the camera and the other stops mid-stride and turns around to go get it.  I absolutely love those moments – especially when they are completely random and off-topic to whatever we’ve been discussing.  🙂

Anyhow, very cool book.  I highly recommend it already, even though I’ve barely started it.  (Incidentally, I decided to read it after finishing Blink by Gladwell)

Well, back to work… adios for now!


2 Responses to “Memetic Viruses”

  1. Interesting–I’ll have to check Goleman out. Have you read his other book, Emotional Intelligence? Memes come from Richard Dawkins–not sure if Goleman credits him. I found out about them in his last book (Dawkins’), where he views religious belief as a meme.

    I just read a funny case of what you are talking about in a book I’m reading called “The Math Instinct”. Remember the guy who said his horse could do math? Well, eventually a clever researcher figured out that the horse was picking up on a subtle body motion of the trainer; what’s interesting is that he didn’t think the trainer was scamming–but had fooled himself–and was giving the horse an unconscious signal to stop tapping at the right answer!

    By the way, I agree, that is a good movie.

  2. nope – haven’t read Emotional Intelligence, though this is sort of a follow-up to it. The only warning I should probably give is that after reading Blink, you’ll recognize many of Goleman’s examples (as, I’m guessing, he was Gladwell’s source).

    Now that you mention it about that “mathematical horse”, I believe I had heard about it a long time ago. It is pretty amazing that he was so subtly communicating these signals without being aware of it.

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