Mimesis is reflexive meme — mind LEGO — sharing among multiple minds or mes. These mes are memes themselves.
Specifically, your me or self is an intersubjective LEGO structure choreographed from all the stories you believe in. They compute together to shape how your mind interprets — or rather predicts — reality around you.
When we are born, we have no self, no I.
A baby's conscious experience is pure sensation. Crawling, touching and grabbing around, they're overwhelmed by sensory data they don't know how to deal with because they have no memory to interpret from. Their world is uncertain and chaotic — even it's just a sofa at this point.
As the baby crawls, its mind maps sensations to the environment and, through trial and error, learns what it should and shouldn't do. Thanks to sensory feedback, it learns that the couch is soft, the floor hard and the dog kind. When experience doesn't resolve uncertainty, the baby turns to mom and dad. When they are calm, the baby calms too. Parents regulate their baby's emotional state with soothing touches, looks and sounds.
Incoming sense data contextualised by caregiver-assisted experience help the baby make sense of the world. They program the baby brain to its environment. Patterns of reality are abstracted into mental models that in turn come to guide new experiences. Imposing these mental models onto outer reality, the uncertain becomes certain. As a result, we gain agency and control — at least we think we do. We feel safe.
The map predicts the territory
Recent neuroscience argues the brain predicts experience from memory before it happens because of metabolic efficiency. Predicting sights and sounds before they are fully sensed costs less energy than reactively creating new perceptions every single sense data comes in. The brain can focus that saved energy as attention on new, uncertain elements — those we are not sure to be safe yet.
"Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else." — George Orwell
Of course, as the saying goes: the map is not the territory. But the map approximates the territory well enough to be practical. When the map errors and the territory hits us in the face, i.e. the prediction proves wrong, we learn. Reality forces the map to update.
Babies cry and sleep so much because they have no memory to predict from. Ambiguous sensory data floods in from all sides to cause cognitive exhaustion. In contrast, adult brains smooth-sail at home because every detail can be predicted. But, like babies, they too tire quickly in unmapped exotic environments, as occurs with culture shock.
From bodily trial-and-error experiences and parental guidance, the baby mind models how the body relates to the environment, so to guide its survival. Herein we don't differ from animals.
The game-changer is language. Language conceptualises mental models in a way that is shareable with others. By learning language a mind's available library of mental models scales to the sum total of mental models other minds share in that language, as memes.
Language also guides abstraction: the mind's ability to compress realities into concepts that can be creatively remixed and integrated to create new, imagined realities. In that sense, imagination is mental modelling that builds on top of memory through linguistic abstraction.
- Memory is accumulated mental modelling built on feedback from the outer environment. It's past experience stored as what the brain thinks is true and guides present experience accordingly. Mostly by acting from what we call intuition.
- Imagination playfully builds on memory to create scenarios for the future. It drives creativity and, more than memory, pulls attention in the direction of the vision that is imagined.
Shared in the web of minds to inspire ever-more of it, collective imagination has abstracted intersubjective reality ever further away from the natural world. Today, aided by smart devices and one-click publishing tools, it digitally mirrors in the metaverse.
Programmed by stories
Through language the young mind enters the mimetic environment of the culture it grows up in. The same way bodily experience signals what is safe and what is not in the natural world through trial-and-error, culture signals what is allowed and what is not in the social world through stories told by schools and media. It scripts how we behave in society.
Reflecting the mind's instinct to compress reality for practical purposes, stories are never literal but true and simple enough to be useful and reproducible at scale. At this point the brain is not mapping sofas anymore, but the world, the universe, and humanity's place within it. Stories help brains condense a complexity otherwise ungraspable. That is why religious and supernatural beliefs exist in every human culture ever studied.
On top of a bodily personality forms a cultural personality. Intersubjective stories are raw material the mind mines to model how it relates to family, peers, community and nation. They equally integrate with memory to inspire imagination and direct cognitive prediction. The stories you believe are the source code that program your behaviour.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." — Joan Didion
Over the past few centuries, religion has been replaced by modernist ideologies built on science rather than God as source of truth. Following technological breakthroughs in the 1800s, we came to believe ourselves god-like masters of our own destiny. "God is dead. We have killed him," is how Nietzsche put it. The story of how technology murdered God as cultural dictator is told later on in this series as suggestive precedent for how NFT technology might murder institutions as shapers of culture.
Because the mind focuses attention where memory and imagination point it, thinking patterns self-reinforce. If we predict present from past, we naturally see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, and believe what we want to believe. Daniel Kahneman speaks of the focusing illusion: we vastly overestimate the significance of anything to which our attention is drawn.
This explains how two people looking at the same thing can come to wildly different conclusions about how the world works. It's why most conversations about politics and religion are dead on arrival. Each participant speaks from a different mental model built on silent assumptions derived from their particular past. Their brains automatically select what stories to care about from what they already believe.
“Words can be communicative only between those who share similar experiences.” — Alan Watts
When there's no cost to being wrong — e.g. in language fights — prediction errors don't occur and the mind can just keep enforcing its beliefs on sense data. Not changing your mind is in fact the most metabolically efficient path. In other words, our brains wired to get stuck in echo chambers, a neurological glitch social media algorithms are happy to exploit for profit.
"A person hears only what they understand." — Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Life of the symbolic self
The self-reference loops of memory and imagination that split perception converge in an integral experience: your self in the world. This self is an emerging experience of the body in its environment, computed in real-time by the brain as it integrates mental models with incoming sensory data. It's through the self that we interact with everything else.
Here we circle back to the mind-body paradox introduced in Part I of this series.
Conceptual thinking proved an evolutionary superpower. By imagining realities that don't exist (yet), humans could think ahead of other animals in the struggle for resources and came to dominate environments. Nature submitted to the mind.
"The world of reality has limits; the world of imagination is boundless." — Jean-Jacques Rousseau
For the mind, possibilities are infinite. Until it realises that it's stuck in a finite body. Ultimately, nature can't be imagined away. Man majestically towers over nature to end up rotting away under the ground.
“The person is both a self and a body. From the beginning, (s)he is confused about where (s)he really is: the physical body or the symbolic self. The body represents determinism and constraint. The self represents freedom of thought, imagination, and the infinity of symbolism." — Ernest Becker
In attempt to defy its mortal destiny, the mind creates a symbolic story about itself that can live on forever in the minds of others. The self thus has an instinct to share itself, to self-express. We do this by sharing memes: media that broadcast mental models of our selves. Speech, writing, dancing, singing, painting, TikToks, .JPEGs.
“Share your knowledge. It's your way to immortality.” — Dalai Lama
Shared in the open, memes become subject to the self-expression of others. In a process that happens way more out of our control that most are willing to admit, we reflectively re-tweet the memes we are exposed in some form or another, whereby each meme slightly updates the self in the process. We've called this reflexive process mimesis and it's the energy that drives culture.
The mind's mission to defy death has, in part, been accomplished. If you consider that today's world is in fact the compounded result of an intersubjective process that aggregated across about a hundred billion brains, collective consciousness — culture — has in fact overcome natural constraints to bend time and space to its will. The individual brain, of course, still dies. But to live on in collective memory makes the shortness and impermanence of life a little more bearable.
How the brain choreographs subjective experience is the subject matter of my next post. Subscribe to get it in your mailbox.
Choose your memes wisely
Let's, once again, climb back up the rabbit hole.
- Mind creates idea.
- Language transmits idea.
- Tweet transmits language.
- Twitter transmits tweet.
By the time you read the tweet, you’ll barely think of it as a someone’s idea, let alone self-expression. You’ll think even less of all the preceding ideas that inspired it. All of which came to the tweeter through other tweets, videos, articles, conversations, education, language itself.
The tweet you read will inspire the tweet you’ll write — even if you’re unaware of it. Every tweet you read executes a subliminal software update on your mind. That tweet carries an idea, shared by a mind from an instinct for self-expression. Minds are continuously influencing each other across space and time. Mimesis.
As such, your self is a product of your mimetic environment.
Your mind is a screen onto which the memes around you project themselves. Those memes are, essentially, other minds, extended across space and time through bodies, objects, technologies — media. Your self interacts with these memes, and evolves in the process.
"Man is a machine. Nothing enters our minds which is not directly or indirectly a response to stimuli beating upon our sense organs." — Nikola Tesla
We look outwards to make sense of a messy world, but in the process become inevitably conditioned by the memes we consume.
This is practical advice to watch your meme diet.
Remember: your brain projects present experience from the past. It projects the minds and memes you spend the most time with.
When we are young, we don't really get to choose the mimetic environments that program us. As we grow up however, we gain agency over where we are, who were with, what we do and what media we spend attention to.
You can't change your past, but you can control your present — which becomes your past from which the brain projects your future present. You're not responsible for the mental models you were handed, but you are responsible for the mental models you have now.
"People don't own ideas. Ideas own people." — Carl Jung
In a brainshell
- Brains mentally map environments bottom-up so they can predict top-down rather than re-perceive them going forward. Predicting sure elements frees up attention for focus on unsure elements. When reality contradicts prediction, the brain learns and fills in blind spots.
- Brains abstract general concepts from specific contexts that can then be pattern-matched with other contexts. Material realities are distilled into mind LEGOs: the all-purpose building blocks of imagination. We compose and remix these mind LEGOs to imagine realities that then come to guide our attention and behaviours.
- Coded in perceivable language and media, mental models become shared and collaborative. Multiple minds move as one when they share the same mental map. At first, the intersubjective closely followed objective reality. As strategising groups, hunter-gatherers got a step on prey and predators. Culture mirrored nature. Over time, the axis shifted. With ever-more participants co-imagining, crowdsourced mental model libraries compounded to dominate human attention. Rather than making new cultures, new minds came to be programmed by the existing cultures they were born into. Nature now mirrors culture.
- Memory compiles mind LEGOs from past experience. Imagination creatively recombines them into new visions. From the myriad of memorised and imagined mind LEGO structures, the mind choreographs the self: the subjective experience that interprets incoming sense data and guides attention to some things over others.
- Because beliefs point you to more of what you already believe, the self perpetuates itself over time and, as long as it remains in familiar environments, becomes ever-less receptive to novelty. The self is programmed to select its memes to fit the past memes that wired it. To break out of echo chambers and gain agency over future self-development, intentionally expose yourself to mimetic environments that challenge your brain's predictions.
- The mind's capacity to imagine itself in the future came with the gut-wrenching realisation that its body was going to die. The story of its self, on the other hand, can live on forever in the minds of others. Man is split in two. Self-expression is the cultural mind's instinct to defy natural death. The more attention a self-story claims, the more immortal it becomes. In culture, selves come together in language and media to create meaning. Therefrom flow the stories, values, religions and ideologies that direct human-environment relations. Culture transcends nature because the minds wants to transcend the body.
- Cultures are mind LEGO structures that dictate how we should and shouldn't behave. When mind LEGO structures imagine how to achieve more with less, they create technologies. Communication technologies in particular accelerate mimetic self-expression and culture itself.
- Today, self-expression happens instantly on a network of interconnected smart devices that mirrors human culture in a virtual reality: the metaverse.