FAQ Memetics

Memes and the Spiral

Philosophers have contemplated mimesis since Plato. The word and its derivatives usually refer to representation, duplication, imitation, mimicry, and even the embodiment of reason in a work; in other words, replicators. Biologist/philosopher Richard Dawkins is generally credited with introducing the term “meme” as a unit of cultural transmission to popular usage in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Richard Brodie expanded on memetics in his 1995 book, Virus of the Mind. Others who have written on memes and memetics include Robert Aunger (The Electric Meme and Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science) and Aaron Lynch (Thought Contagion). The versatile scholar Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine should be considered a primary source for those interested in memetics as related to SD. Others continue to debate and elaborate on mimesis while the profession of ‘meme management’ takes shape to promote ideas, images, and characters.

The memeticists seek to explain how the replicants – products of memesis which might take the form of behaviors, concepts, ideas, cultural artifacts, even logos – propagate and migrate among minds. As Dawkins conceives of them, memes reproduce themselves; they interact with their surroundings and adapt to them; they mutate; they persist; and they defend themselves against each other. They compete for mindscape space. Memes evolve to fill waiting niches in their local environments, which are, in this case, the surrounding belief systems and cultures of their natural hosts, namely, us. They compete, they migrate, they thrive, they go dormant, and many fade away when their life span is over.

Memes are transmitted in conversation, via the mass media, in literature, religion and political discourse. They take the form of simple concepts and grow to become complicated social trends. The Internet is a meme transmitter on a grand scale; the entertainment industry is another. Marketing, public relations, and image management involve massaging memes – making a message “sticky” or having it “go viral”.

Memes – Value Added to SD

Intriguing as they are, memes are subject to a still deeper set of organizing principles which attract and repel them. Memes float in the flow of evolving human consciousness—and there’s a broader pattern to the currents and eddies in this stream of conceptions and ideas. The larger field in which memes get planted and grow is described by the Gravesian point of view which maps psychospace. This becomes useful for students using approaches shared in Spiral Dynamics® training as a way to link what someone thinks about with how and why they think about it as they do. For example, people whose mindscapes center around a quest for absolute meaning and purpose, certainty, and obedience to external authority will likely be more open to particular meme sets shaped in particular forms than other people who might be experiencing a world of collaboration, sharing, belonging, indefiniteness, and affect. The Spiral model provides a framework for analysis of memes and why some are sticky and some are not, as well as a better understanding of why memes resonate in some minds, at some times, and not others.

In the 1996 book, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, the coauthors, Chris Cowan and Don Beck, adapted some terminology of memetics onto Gravesian theory in an effort to clarify the values vs. valuing systems confusion that impairs understanding of the work. They coined the term vMeme – value system meme attractor – to help make sense of the migration of memes and their cultural impact. Dr. Graves never spoke of memes or memetics, though he made it quite clear that his levels of psychological existence represented ways of thinking about things.

The “v” + Meme concept is an effort to show the connection between the ideas carried in memes and the underlying valuing systems (thus, the v), thinking structures, worldviews, coping strategies, or Gravesian levels of psychological existence that pull them together into constellations which shape behavior. The term “value system,” is often taken as a collection of values, a catalog of attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and norms accepted as behavioral guidelines by a person or group. This interpretation sees values as contents—the beliefs and ethical frames that set priorities and shape moral choices.

Values are formed, selected, shaped, and expressed through the thinking of the underlying valuing system, the conceptual system operating the individual or collective mind. The systems along “the spiral” can be thought of as vMemes—value-system frameworks or meme attractors—that shape the expression of life priorities, worldviews and vistas, and form the context for the individual memes that arise and circulate within them. These awakening vMemes establish the armature for deep mindsets and worldviews to which specific memes attach as contents, or from which they are repelled. They are the scaffolding on which the constructs of the mind are built, the Velcro®-like hooks to which the loops of memes attach and bond. We stand on our platforms of vMemeto observe the world and report the “reality” as we see it. Advertisers shoot memes at us, hoping they will be sticky and hold our attention.

Why Some Things Go Viral and Others Don’t

An understanding of the deep vMEMEs helps explain why some memes that arise “take” and stick around while others drift into oblivion. A meme that does not fit the active vMeme cluster is often ignored, but sometimes fought off like an invader. When a meme does fit the active vMeme, it becomes part of the memetic package and endures. It can even influence the milieu enough to cause a shift in the underlying vMeme(s) as part of the spiral process to more complex and elaborated conceptions of being. The meme’s lifespan is a function of its own power and the forces at work in the vMeme.

At this level, the vMeme model offers the memetic discussion something really quite new to think about. Just note that memes and vMemes are not at all the same thing, though many people seem unable to differentiate the two constructs, a confusion which diminishes both. Indeed, one might argue that some of the ideas and terminology from the Spiral Dynamics book such as the color code have turned into memes, themselves.

Still not clear? To understand the difference, think of concept – a what, an idea – and then conceptualization – a how, the process of thinking about that thing. Memes are what we think about. vMemes structure how we assign worth or prioritize to those things. Memes are contents. The ways we think about them are through the Gravesian systems, or vMemes. Understand the vMemes active in a person or group – the underlying world view – and you begin to understand why some memes resonate and others don’t, and why the same meme can be framed in many different ways; it can be valued for different reasons; there can be many opinions about it. For example, notions like “democracy” or “justice” can be expressed in various forms, depending on the container they’re put into.

The Meme versus VMeme Problem

Once you begin to understand the systems along the Spiral you will begin to recognize the difference between memes and vMemes because it’s like recognizing the difference between effects and causes, symptoms and diseases. Memes and vMemes become conflated and confused primarily at the more superficial myth/metaphor levels of understanding. Once you delve into the many models and theory covered in Spiral Dynamics® programs, the difference becomes glaring and obvious. But when this body of knowledge is treated primarily as a color-code for types of people/ideas/things/symbols, then it is easy to miss the difference between behaviors and what lies behind them.

Metaphorically, the principles of meme spread can be applied to vMeme spread, as well. This is what confuses a lot of people. When the Gravesian systems are collapsed into complexes of values and behaviors with a color-code, then “Green” or “Orange” can devolve into meme matching – replicated information packets – just as Democrat and Republican, conservatives and liberals, collapse for some into stereotypes. The catch is that Green and Orange can be expressed in many ways. The framework is a generality; the expression specifics.

It’s here that the values (memes) versus Value Systems (vMemes) distinction becomes important. The eternal question is not to catalog what someone values, but to understand why and how that thing comes to be important, and to anticipate what will happen if the mindset is in transition. Whenever someone speaks of “Green values” vs. “Blue values”, look out. This reflects only a myth-level understanding of the Spiral since values are expressions of systems, not systems, themselves. The expressions can vary markedly from culture to culture, or even with sub-cultural groups, yet be conceptualized in a similar way. Instead, think about valuing in a Blue (absolutistic/authoritarian) way versus an Orange (multiplistic/probabilistic) way. The Gravesian question is about process, not locked into details of its expressions. So the Spiral is not a values model; it is a valuing model.

We do ourselves and others damage when we try to give permanence to something that is inherently impermanent. Remember, also, that vMemes are biopsychosocial systems and, as such, emerge out of double-helix interactions between neuronal systems inside and existential conditions outside. While it is possible to paint on a few memes to give the appearance of a vMeme’s stereotype, actualizing it as a full-on coping system is something else. vMemes are like attractors and containers for memes, sponges that sop up the ideas that are seeking to replicate through our minds and shaping them to fit and congruence. Memes are metallic filings; vMemes are magnets.

Many pundits insist on confusing the terms, even though the two constructs are quite different. One is an idea and concept chunk; the other a container and empty framework in need of contents. Because of the values vs. valuing systems mess, we often speak of ‘LOE’ (level of existence) or ‘coping system’ instead of value system. To suggest that meme and vMeme are interchangeable terms only extends the semantic confusion, and to overlap the language diminishes and dilutes both. The theory of memetics and the vMeme model are complementary. But a meme is not a vMeme, and a Gravesian level of psychological existence is not a meme, even though you can argue that a label such as, “Green meme”, could be.

Expressions and coping systems: How do schema and thema relate in Gravesian terms?

In Spiral Dynamics® training an ongoing dilemma in using and teaching these theories and models is the differentiation of artifacts (memes playing out as schema—actions, beliefs, behaviors, mental scripts and anchors for perceptions) from vMemes (the underlying thema—ways of thinking about things, worldviews, coping systems), then pulling them back together into a coherent picture of human nature in its various contexts. For example, Dr. Graves described the first level of existence like this: “As A and N interact, the resultant is the automatic psychosocial way of living. This is a general way (thema) which can be specified into many particular forms (schema) of problems A, and many variances in the N neurological system.” Each level of existence (nodal color in Spiral Dynamics language) has a unique thematic form that is both like and unlike others in the hierarchy.

Though many disagree, we continue to believe that the meme/vMeme differentiation is important because using “meme” as a generic conflates the symptoms with the underlying causes—the thema with the schema—and leads us to miss nuance and generate troublesome stereotypes. The conflation of the two is understandable in Korzybskian terms as levels of abstraction and confusing maps with territories, and parallels the old problem of distinguishing values (as attitudes and content) from value systems (as cognition structures).

Research into both areas is important so that an even clearer sense of thema (per Graves and other theorists) can be derived, as well as applications dealing with the schema observable in individual and group behaviors.For Graves, each level has a general thema which is then expressed through behavioral choices and cultural norms particular to times, places, existential problems, and neurological capacities.