Why you do the things you do - the study of ideas and trends that catch on rapidly

Did you know that every time you hum a catchy tune, or buy a movie ticket, or switch from white to brown bread, you could be creating a meme? We’ve all heard of the gene pool. Now, welcome to the meme pool. Memes are essentially the cultural equivalent of a gene. They are contagious behavioural patterns, which are learned from family, community and society at large and, like genes, they can be inherited. They can be an idea or a trend. They multiply by leaping from mind to mind, and some would suggest that the evolution of culture comes from a sort of Darwinian competition among memes. So, some memes are more powerful in the meme pool than others— which is why a particular song or trend lasts longer than another. Santosh Desai, a commentator on popular culture, explains: “A meme is something that is imitative, almost in a reflexive way rather than a cognitive way. Like a catchy tune which gets into your head and refuses to leave. It is possible to infect other people with it. It bypasses the intellect. So any thing that is catchy is seen to be a meme.” He gives the examples of viral marketing, hotmail, friendship bands and religion. For instance, the way in which a particular Buddhist cult has caught on, where suddenly every one around you is in it. Not surprisingly, the study of memes, or memetics, has become the new buzzword among any one trying to understand the consumer, the shopper, or even the voter. In his book It Happened in India retail king Kishore Biyani, an avid follower of memes, writes: They replicate cultural information that is transmitted from person to person, much like genes transmit hereditary information from a person to his or her progeny. They (memes) help explain why the son of a traditional staple riceeater from Kerala changes his eating habits to a more diverse pallate. Or why certain individuals are opting to wear shoes with adjustable soles that can increase or decrease their height. As a retailer, he wants to know “Essentially, what will be the change in the next generation of (say) riceeaters and how do we need to evolve before the customer does.” Although the retail and marketing community has adopted the study of memetics to understand and predict trends, the term ‘meme’ was first coined by an evolutionary biologist and Oxford don, Richard Dawkins.

In his book The Selfish Gene Dawkins writes: “When we die, there are two things we can leave behind us: Genes and memes…Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.” He concludes: “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines.” Sometimes, a gene and a meme can be in conflict with each other. He gives the example of celibacy—an idea that at some point caught on in certain religious communities. While genes are pushing to be propagated, the celibacy memes are working in the opposite direction!