Memes and Mind Viruses

Excerpted from:
Meme Manual: A Cybernaut's User's Guide to Mind Viruses [Version 1.1]
by Brett Thomas © 1995

The purpose of the Meme Manual is to provide a conceptual understanding of the important field of memes. Memes, mind viruses and media viruses are important and useful concepts. Memetics (the field of the study of memes) provides a foundation for understanding the evolution of society up to now, and provides real tools for change, a technology through which we can engineer the future that we want.

We live in a momentous time in the evolution of humanity. Changes are happening so fast that is becoming more and more difficult to keep track. What it means to be human will be redefined over the next decade. Recent scientific discoveries are raising profound and alarming questions about how our minds have been programmed since we were children. It is disconcerting, to say the least, when we first are exposed to the provocative memetic perspective that much of our mind may be in use as a replication system for the memes/mind viruses that we were infected with as children.

Of course our fascination with memes, as well as human evolution goes beyond the issue of how will it effect us and our lives. We are interested in learning how to quickly and pervasively influence these changes.

Memetic theory suggests that humanity is out of the genetic evolution phase of its development, now humanity is evolving memetically. What used to take consciousness to evolve (through genetics) over millions of years, now takes decades or years (through memetics).

Editor's note:

In 1995, Brett Thomas published a small limited edition booklet entitled, Meme Manual: A Cybernaut's User's Guide to Mind Viruses. The following is an excerpt from the actual manual. The definitions provided should give you a basic conceptual understanding of the field of memetics. These are followed by a reading list (including URL's) where you can learn more.



(Biological definition from Dawkins)
The meme is the basic unit of cultural transmission or imitation. Examples of memes are: tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches.

(Psychological definition from Plotkin)
A meme is a unit of cultural heredity analogous to the gene. It is the internal representation of knowledge.

(Cognitive Definition from Dennett)
A meme is an idea, the kind of complex ideea that forms itself into a distinct memorable unit. It is spread by vehicles that are physical manifestations of the meme.

(Simplified working definition by Brodie)
A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds.

Additional Definitions and Descriptions of memes:

1. Memes are a metaphor and theory for understanding the spreading of ideas.
The word "meme", is parallel to the word "gene" and likens the spreading of ideas to that of the spreading of genes. In this metaphor, ideas are taken to be akin to viruses and "infect" their hosts so that those ideas are spread ever further.

2. Memes are the fundamental replicating units of cultural evolution. A contagious information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the pattern. Individual slogans, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions are typical memes. An idea or information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone to replicate it, to repeat it to someone else.

3. Memes represent the basic building block of culture in the same way the gene is the basic building block of biological life. On the macro scale, memes are the building blocks of culture and languages, societies, and religions. On the micro scale they are the building blocks of each human mind.

4. An idea considered as a replicator, especially with the connotation that memes parasitize people into propagating them much as viruses do. Use of the term connotes acceptance of the idea that in humans, cultural evolution by selection of adaptive ideas has superseded biological evolution by selection of hereditary traits.


The study of memes. A theory for understanding the spreading of useful information patterns (ideas). Memetics is the study of the workings of memes: how they interact, reproduce, and evolve. Memetics is analagous to genetics, which studies the same things about genes.


A virus is anything that takes external copying equipment and puts it to work making copies of itself.

Mind virus:

A mind virus is something out in the world that infects people with memes. Those memes, in turn, influence the infected people's behavior so that they help perpetuate and spread the virus.

Media virus:

A media virus is a type of mind virus. It utlilizes a media message that is a carrier of memes.

There are three types of media viruses:
1)intentional media viruses: advertising, publicity, or media pranks designed to spread an ideology or a product.
2)co-opted (or bandwagon) media viruses: no one intentionally launches it, but it is quickly seized upon and spread by groups who hope to promote their own agendas.
3)self-generated media viruses: spawned by spontaneous events that elicit interest and spread of their own accord because they hit upon a societal weakness or ideological vacuum.

Evolutionary psychology:

The field that examines the biases and mechanisms in our minds that evolved to support our survival and reproduction.


A form of intolerance; a condition which causes a person to react in an unusually extreme manner when exposed to a specific semiotic stimulus, or "meme-allergen." Exo-toxic meme-complexes typically confer dangerous meme-allergies on their hosts. Often, the actual meme-allergens need not be present, but merely perceived to be present, to trigger a reaction. Common meme-allergies include homophobia, paranoid anti-Communism, and porno phobia. Common forms of meme-allergic reaction are censorship, vandalism, belligerent verbal abuse, and physical violence.


A set of mutually-assisting memes which have co-evolved a symbiotic relationship. Religious and political dogmas, social movements, artistic styles, traditions and customs, chain letters, paradigms, languages, etc. are meme-complexes. Also called an m-plex, or scheme. Types of co-memes commonly found in a scheme are called the: bait; hook; threat; and vaccine.

Meme pool:

The full diversity of memes accessible to a culture or individual. Learning languages and traveling are methods of expanding one's meme pool.

Memetic engineer:

One who intentionally devises memes, through meme-splicing and memetic synthesis, with the intent of altering the behavior of others. Writers of manifestos and of commercials are typical memetic engineers.


1. Successful encoding of a meme in the memory of a human being. A memetic infection can be either active or inactive. It is inactive if the host does not feel inclined to transmit the meme to other people. An active infection causes the host to want to infect others. Fanatically active hosts are often membots or memeoids. A person who is exposed to a meme but who does not remember it (consciously or otherwise) is not infected.

A host can indeed be unconsciously infected, and even transmit a meme without conscious awareness of the fact. Many societal norms are transmitted this way.

2. Some memeticists have used "infection" as a synonym for "belief" (i.e. only believers are infected, non-believers are not). However, this usage ignores the fact that people often transmit memes they do not "believe in." Songs, jokes, and fantasies are memes which do not rely on "belief" as an infection strategy.

Infection strategy:

Any memetic strategy which encourages infection of a host. Jokes encourage infection by being humorous, tunes by evoking various emotions, slogans and catch-phrases by being terse and continuousl repeated. Common infection strategies are "Sense of Community", "Villain vs. victim", "Fear of Death", and "we must defeat the enemy" i.e. "war on drugs". In a meme-complex, the bait co-meme is often central to the infection strategy. (See replication strategy.)


The realm of memetic evolution, as the biosphere is the realm of biological evolution. The sum total of the entire memetic ecology. The health of an ideosphere can be measured by its memetic diversity.

Mediasphere or datasphere:

Just as ecologists view the life on this planet to be part of a single biological organism, media activists see the datasphere as the circulatory system for today's information, ideas, and images. An extension of the planetary ecosystem, the datasphere serves as a breeding ground for new ideas in our culture. Minds are exposed to the datasphere whenever they come into contact with communications technology such as television, computer networks, magazines, video games, fax machines, radio shows, CD's, or videocassettes. Media viruses spread through the datasphere the same way biological viruses spread through the human body, or a community. But instead of traveling along an organic circulatory system, a media virus travels through the networks of the mediasphere.


A person/mind who has been successfully infected by a meme.


The part of a meme-complex that urges replication (to duplicate itself in order to spread more copies). The hook is often most effective when it is not an explicit statement, but a logical consequence of the meme's content. (See bait)


The part of a meme-complex that promises to benefit the host (usually in return for replicating the complex). The bait usually justifies, but does not explicitly urge, the replication of a meme-complex. Also called the reward co-meme. (In many religious meme systems, "Salvation" is the bait, or promised reward; "Spread the Word" is the hook. Other common bait co-memes are "Eternal Bliss", "Security", "Prosperity", "Freedom".) (See also infection strategy.)

Replication strategy:

Any memetic strategy used by a meme to encourage its host to repeat the meme to other people.

Meme Resource List

Alphabetical List of Resources Related to Memes:

Ball, John
1. Memes as replicators
in: Ethology and Sociobiology; 1984 Vol 5(3) 145-161
Several well-known genetic phenomena (e.g., birth, death, sexual selection) are translated into memetic language.

Bartley, W. W.
1. The Retreat to Commitment (2nd edition, 1984, Open Court)
At first glance this book seems to be a history of Protestant philosophy in the last 150 years, but it turns out to be the book that set evolutionary epistemology on its feet. The first edition came out in 1962, some fourteen years before Dawkins published The Selfish Gene.

Bible, The Holy
1. The on-line Bible
URL= http://olt.et.tudelft.nl/fun/bible.html
5 Mb of extremely contagius, virulent and robust mind viruses. The early editors of the various books that were compiled and published by the early Christian religious leaders as "The Bible" literally "wrote the book" on using memes and mind viruses to progate belief systems and for behavior modification of the masses.

Bonner, J.T.
1. The Evolution of Culture in Animals (1980, Princeton University Press)
Examples of memes in the animal world are most bird songs, and certain techniques for hunting or using tools that are passed from parents or the social group to the youngsters

Brodie, Richard
1. Virus of the Mind (1995)
Excellent, thorough introduction to Memetics and evolutionary psychology

Churchland, Paul M.
1. A Neurocomputational Perspective (MIT Press, 1989)
Discusses the latest neural-net based models of brain function and their application to philosophy. Many fruitful ideas about the brain representation of memes can be obtained from this book.

Clark, Stephen R. L.
1. Minds, Memes and Rhetoric
in: Inquiry, March 1993, vol 36 nr 1/2 Dennett's Consciousness
Explained presents a fully naturalized account of consciousnesss that manages to leave out the very consciousness he purports to explain. If he were correct, realism and methodological individualism would collapse, as would the very enterprise of giving reasons. The metaphors he deploys actually testify to the power of metaphoric imagination that can no more be identified with the metaphors it creates that mind can be identified with memes. That latter equation, of mind with meme-complexes rests for its meaning on the existence of real minds, which are not to be equated with the thought they have. Part of a symposium on Dennett's Consciousness Explained.

Costall, Alan
1. The 'Meme' Meme
in: Cultural Dynamics, 1991 vol 4 nr 3 Tracing the meme meme back to Darwin, the author finds himself, as it were on the other side. Instead of finding that cultural evolution is like biological evolution, Costall proposes the reverse: that biological evolution behaves like cultural evolution. Intentionality is seen as the link between social and biological theory.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly
1. The Evolution of Self
Discusses memes in the context of possibilities for the evolution of humanity. (Psychology)

Dawkins, Richard
1. The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976)
Evolution of social behavior. Last chapter introduces the 'meme' concept as smallest unit in cultural evolution, analogous to genes in biological evolution.
2. The Extended Phenotype (Oxford University Press, 1982)
Innovative ideas on (genetic) evolution. Discussion of replicators in general.
3. The Selfish Gene (new ed. 1989)
Two additional chapters on memetics.
4. The 'Awe' Factor
in: Skeptical Inquirer, spring 1993, vol 17 nr 3
5. Viruses of the Mind
in: Free Inquiry, summer 1993, vol 13 nr 3

Dennett, Daniel C.
1. Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination
in: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, v. 48 Spring '90
Championing the meme as a unit of cultural evolution advantageous to itself, Dennett corrects most of the basic misunderstandings of memetic theory found in facile pop sociobiology and cultural philosophy. According to this view, memes co-evolve as a protective and continuous network/infosphere, As integral to our phenotypes, as anything biologically pre-ordained.
2. Consciousness Explained (1991)
Multiple Drafts Model of human consciousness. Discusses the role of memes in the evolution of consciousness.

Drexler, K. Eric
1. Engines of Creation (1990)
Nanotechnology. Drexler discusses memes as examples of replicators.
Emphasizes the dangers of memes infecting future nanocomputers.
2. Unbounding the Future

Forste, Eric Watt
1. Memetics, Evolutionary Epistemology, Sociology of Knowledge
URL= http://www.c2.org/~arkuat/meme.html
Web page containing links to articles on memetics and related topics.

Gazzaniga, Michael S.
1. The Social Brain (Basic Books, 1985)
Split brain research. Inference-making, belief formation, religion.

Godwin, Mike
1. Meme, Counter-meme
in: WIRED magazine, october 1994. vol. 2.10 ; page 85
Mike Godwin expounds on the craft of counter-memetics.

Guthery, Scott B.
1. Echonets, E-memes and Extended Realities
in: Dr. Dobb's journal, software tools for the pro, April 1994, vol 19
nr 4 Mobile computing requires a new way of thinking about networks. Scott discusses the concept of switchless networks, called 'echonets', and presents algorithms that make them possible.

Graves, Paul
1. The Persistence of Memory: Dynamics of Sociocultural Evolution
in: Cultural Dynamics; 1991, 4, 3, 290-320.
If social or cultural evolution & biological evolution are to be compared, it is not by reducing the former to the output of a monolithic mechanism of memetic selection, but rather, by recognizing that biological evolution must be viewed as a structurally complex process taking place on a multiplicity of mutually constraining levels.

Hofstadter, Douglas R.
1. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books, 1979)
Another 5 Mb of thought viruses
2. On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures (1983)
in: Scientific American, vol. 248, January 1983
reprinted in: Metamagical Themas (Basic Books, 1985)
Explains the meme concept. Defines some memetic terminology.
3. Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies

Hofstadter, Douglas R. and Daniel C. Dennett
1. The Mind's I (Brighton, 1981)
Essays on consciousness. Includes an article by Dawkins on memes.

Hutchison, Michael
1. Anatomy of Sex and Power (1990) [This book is out of print but worth searching for. -- Several chapters on memes are condensed into an article that was published in New Age Journal, below.]
2. "The Plaque of Intolerance". Article on Memes in New Age Journal. July/August 1990. (Excerpted from Anatomy of Sex and Power.)
3. Mega Brain Power (Hyperion 1994)

Lumsden, Charles J. and Wilson, Edward O.
1. Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process (Harvard University Press, 1981)
Introduces the 'culturgen' as basic unit of inheritance in cultural evolution, colonizing the mind. Profound mathematical treatment of gene-culture coevolution. Interesting biogeographical analogues. The principles of epigenesis.

Minsky, Marvin
1. The Society of Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1985)
Describes the mind as a collection of competing 'agents'.

O'Conner, Joseph
1. Introduction to Neuro-Linguistic Programming
This book is possibly the best introduction to this important technology. NLP is the owners manual to the software of the human mind. The most skilled memeticists utilize NLP techniques to engineer devastatingly effective mind viruses. Also important for crafting compelling media viruses.

Patterson, Marvin L.
1. Accelerating Innovation: A Dip into the Meme Pool
in: National Productivity Review, Fall 1990, vol.9 nr.4 Ideas about memes are applied to product development management. Strategies are explained and supported by constructing analogies between the innovation process and an informational assembly line, applying the theories of economist W.Edwards Deming. The richness of alternative solutions, is seen as a function of the size of the meme pool, and ultimately as an index to successfull and markeatable innovations.

Principia Cybernetica Project
1. PCP home page
URL= http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/
A rich source of articles on evolution, self-organization, memetics, etc.
2. Memetics home page
URL= http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/MEMES
3. ftp-access
URL= file://is1.vub.ac.be/pub/projects/Principia_Cybernetica
Note: some of these URLs may no longer work. Try searching for "Principia Cybernetica"

Rheingold, Howard
1. Untranslatable Words
in: Whole Earth Review #57: 3-8.

Robbins, Anthony
1. Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986)
Highly infective ideas on self-improvement. When you interpret the text from a memetic perspective, you'll see that this book is really about metamemes and complex memetic power structures. (Based on the important field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) - a better introduction to NLP is found in the book, Introduction to Neuro-Linguistic Programming by Joseph O'Conner.

Rushkoff, Douglas
1. Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture (Ballantine, 1994)
2. Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace (Harper Collins, 1994)
A must read for cybernauts and memetic engineers.

Russel, Peter
1. The Brain Book
2. The Global Brain (book) and
3. The Global Brain Video (Was an award-winning PBS Mini-series special)
4. The White Hole in Time
5. The Global Brain Awakened
The "global brain" theory is the theory of how the planet is a living entity and humanity represents the nervous system and brain of this organism. Compelling evidence for this expanded, high tech "Gaia" theory. Includes amazing fractal comparisons between a developing fetus' brain and earth's population; neural connections in the brain and the "datasphere" and internet; and (Global Brain Video) compelling comparison between microscopic photographs of malignant cancer and Los Angeles from 20,000 feet ­p; yes they look almost indistinguishable.

Schrage, Michael
1. Are Ideas Viruses of the Mind?
in: The Washington Post, October 30, 1988, final ed.

Shaker, Paul
1. Applying the Sociobiological Synthesis to Education (1982)
Shows how concepts of sociobiology are compatible with a number of theories already applied in education, such as those of Piaget, Kohlberg, Chomsky, and Jung.

Sperry, Roger
1. Science and Moral Priority: Merging Mind, Brain and Human Values (Blackwell, 1983)

Stephenson, Neal
1. Snow Crash (science fiction novel)
Explains the Sumerian concepts of ME, NUB-SHUB, meme, and lots of other interesting things. Highly recommended.

Vajk, J. Peter
1. Memetics: the nascent science of ideas and their transmission
URL= http://www.uio.no/~mwatz/memetics/memetics.txt
If this URL fails, try searching for "nascent science of ideas"

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