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Finding Health in the Theme of Memes

Unlike genes, over which we do not have true mastery and are unlikely to any time soon, memes are of our own devising. We have the means to make them do what we want.
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The medical theme of health news the past week was memes. That could be a force for good, but the particular stories in question very much suggest we're not there yet!

First things first: For those who don't know, a "meme" is a unit of cultural replication, analogous to a gene, which of course is a unit of biological replication. A meme is an idea that catches on -- and spreads among us.

What makes a meme comparable to a gene is that it spreads not only through a population at a given time, but from one generation to the next over time. Plato may have had no children of his own to whom his genes were passed, but his ideas were passed to every generation since. We are all, to some extent, children of his thinking.

The term "meme" was coined by Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford University and one of the world's preeminent evolutionary biologists. It was introduced in his seminal book of 1976, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins devotes much of the book to a concept that has reframed modern thinking about evolutionary biology: Genes that are good at surviving spread for that very reason, and the array of animal bodies that house such genes are more or less just vehicles for them. Before Dawkins, the thinking was all about organisms that were "fit" for survival, or even species. Dawkins pointed out that what actually "replicates" and survives over time -- sometimes in a long line of organisms -- is a gene.

Dawkins recognized that genes in the driver's seat might be upsetting to people (and they have been!) but it was not his intent to deny the notion that we are masters of our fate and captains of our soul!

At some point, the human vehicle became sophisticated enough to replicate in ways beyond the basic biology of genes. Human beings invented culture -- and the capacity to influence future generations with ideas. Dawkins called such units of cultural replication "memes." And the fate of both "memes," and "selfish genes" has proven his point admirably. The concept of the selfish gene is now widespread among two generations of scientists (and much of the world at large). The term "meme" is widely used and appears in most dictionaries. In other words, both the "selfish gene" and the "meme" itself are... memes.

Which brings us back to last week's health and medical memes. First came the story of a YouTube phenomenon among kids called "the cinnamon challenge." As you likely know, it is a widely-replicating dare to swallow a teaspoon of cinnamon. This is, of course, entirely pointless and potentially dangerous, but has nonetheless spread like wildfire across a vast and highly-flammable expanse of tween and teen brains. It is an idiotic meme.

Then, there were two studies about the influence what and when and how we eat has on one another. One study suggested that we snack in the presence of others who are snacking to make both them, and ourselves, feel at ease. The other study suggested that young women mimicked one another's behavior at meal time -- even to the point of synchronized chewing. Memes, it seems, are on the menu at meal time and snack time alike.

The cinnamon challenge is a blend of kids will be kids, being kids means being stupid at times, and YouTube means never having to be a stupid kid on your own! I say this as a loving parent of five -- it just is what it is. Perhaps it's all nicely summed up by a poster I had hanging on the wall of my dorm room in college: "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment."

But while YouTube can unify legions of kids in propagating a pointless and potentially dangerous meme, it offers comparable potential in the other direction. Figuring out ways to make health and kindness and solidarity the centerpieces of engaging memes is a challenge for us all. We have begun work on a program to deliver empowering messages about health via music videos to kids in the age group currently preoccupied with gagging on cinnamon. Here's hoping...

As for social influences on eating: Of course we find them when we look for them! We homo sapiens are and always have been social animals, and eating has always been a social activity. Food is shared. What, when, and how much others of the "clan" eat helps us know what's reasonable, appropriate, and right. Mimicry of this kind likely has deep roots in anthropology, and perhaps even biology. If the young of a species don't mimic the dietary patterns of the adults, they risk ingesting poisons or starving. In the bluntest terms, we learn what, when, and how to eat watching others of our kind do it.

That said, I can't say I'm all that impressed by evidence of synchronized chewing when young women eat together. If two young women are having a meal together, they have a choice: talk or chew. It may be that they synchronize chewing because at other times they are talking. It may all come down to, don't talk with your mouth full!

That we are prone to eat too much, and all the wrong things, to fit in with others doing so cries out for a meme going the other way. Imagine the simple power of talking about our interest in being healthy and lean, and eating well to help get there -- and asking others to help us. Simple candor about the importance, and challenge, of this effort could get us all a bit closer to the prize with a little help from our friends. Peer pressure doesn't have to work against us.

And that's what it all comes down to. Unlike genes, over which we do not have true mastery and are unlikely to any time soon, memes are of our own devising. We have the means to make them do what we want.

In unity, there is strength. (The expression is, of course, a meme.) But whether strength for good or ill, productivity or inanity, is up for grabs. Pondering the possible, I end with one last meme: Hope springs eternal!


For more by David Katz, M.D., click here.

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