The Self Meme

I received the following question from a reader:

Is the self really a meme? .... The self can exist without culture. Animals [can] have a representation of self in their nervous systems.

This is an excellent question!

Representations of Self

The correspondent is correct that animals represent themselves in their brains. A cat can survey the distance between furniture and window, visibly prepare to make the jump, then execute it flawlessly. Somewhere inside the cat there was a model that comprised all the elements of that jump.

Some people may not appreciate how wonderful it is that cats can do this. Yet I remember, with the clarity of a photograph, a moment twenty years ago when I watched a cat jump. A realization hit me:  if a cat uses mental representations, then what about a mouse? What about an insect? A clam? At what level of complexity does representation come in? And what can representation and modeling teach us about the evolution of mental mechanisms and software?

The minds of humans appear more complex than those of mice or cats. For example, we not only have models of our body and other elements in the environment but we also have models of those models. We can close our eyes and imagine a jump between two ledges that exist only in our imagination. In so doing we feel little or no reference to anything physical.

In such imaginings we can also imagine that which is obviously false. We can imagine being able to “jump tall buildings in a single bound” (as the fictional Superman is able to do).

Is there an evolutionary advantage to this kind of mental activity? Daydreaming about super strength might seem like a waste of time. Nonetheless, holding in mind a false model of the self can be useful, as it allows us to ask “what if” questions for far-future planning. “What if I worked up to running 15 miles a day? Would I live longer?” To the best of my knowledge there are no non-human animals that are capable of this kind of thought.

It is, in fact, a bit misleading to call this “a false model”. It might be better to call it a speculative model. At least, it is speculative provided we remember that it is imaginary. If, on the other hand, we start believing that our own models are real, then it is worth being reminded that they are not.

The “self meme” I mentioned earlier is wrapped up in this process of speculation about what could be. The ability to do this is not, in my view, hard-wired. In my opinion, the idea of modeling false selves arose alongside language, which was itself a set of memetic accretions. (I do not dispute that our genome has altered to favour language skills.)

Seductive Models

At this point, let us make the following observation:

The more accurate a model, the more useful it can be.

This may seem self-evident, but it is not hard-wired into us. To some extent we discover it for ourselves, but as we are raised we are repeatedly taught to think more “clearly” to take advantage of the fact that a higher-resolution model will serve us better. But is this actually a case of thinking more clearly?

Ideally, yes. In practice, not always. The higher the resolution of a model, the easier it is to mix it up with reality. This can backfire on us.

For example, you may become so familiar with a good friend that you can simulate conversations with him or her in your head. You know them so well that you can model them with great fidelity. The drawback to this is that in real life, when face to face with your friend, you can end up talking to the model rather than the real person. (This can create a feedback loop of self-fulfilling expectations, but that's a matter for another article.)

This confusion can also happen with our models of ourselves. We can form images of what we are and end up treating them like reality. Consider the woman who says, “I am a Republican!” or the man who says, “I eat rare meat like a real man!” Meme-based models such as “Republican” and “real man” can turn into illusions if a person believes they are real things.

To generalize the foregoing, let me make two observations:

We can be seduced into treating imaginary objects like real objects.
The way humans treat models of self can be considered a meme.

We are taught attitudes towards our selves, such as “You are special!” But while these can be useful within the context of our culture, they are objectively false. You are not really all that special, nor are you separate from all reality in the way that most people have been taught into believing.

The idea that these illusions about self could be true can be called “the self meme”. That is to say, at some point in the history of humanity we began believing that our models were really us and we started teaching that misconception to our children.

At the core of the self meme is the idea that what we are taught about ourselves can be just as valid as what we observe of our own accord. This may be a convenient idea, but it is, ultimately, false.


  1. A feeling is not a meme and it is yet experienced. Memories of feelings are not memes. This accretion of experiences can generate a self representation that is not culturally learned. It is not a meme. Animals, like chimps us a mirror to see the inside of there mouth. It is not a meme working.
    I know that some self ideas are learned, and they can be memes, but at the core, the individual human, like some other animals, do not have a self representation that is memetic.

  2. "... at the core, the individual human, like some other animals, do not have a self representation that is memetic."

    I accept that you feel that at your core you do not have a self that is memetic. That's what the memes need you to feel. If you knew they WEREN'T you, you'd be able to shrug them off like a bad idea.

    If a man says, "I am a Republican" then he is referencing a meme to say what he is. To the extent that he feels strongly about it, his behavior and his identity — his model of his self — will become tied up with that meme.

    This phenomenon is quite noticeable when somebody identifies with a religion, as in "I am a Muslim". Islam is memetic, obviously, and a Muslim will behave as a Muslim does. It all starts with "I am X". Once you let a meme affix itself to what you genuinely are, then you start to become what you THINK you are.

    A person who feels strongly about the memetic version of his "self" (like a Muslim zealot or any patriot from history) might actually DIE because of that "self". How close to the core do the memes have to get before we see that memes can completely alter one's view of self? Is the death of the believer not proof enough?

  3. Circle Of Life: I had a second look at your comment (which I had trouble understanding) and I realize that you were talking about (A) our biographical memory (which is not memetic per se, but is assuredly not the true self, though it IS mistaken for it) and (B) our representation of self, which is (as you say) not memetic.

    The representation of self is not what I am talking about when I talk about the self meme, nor even the whole model. As you rightly point out, you do not have to LEARN how to model your organism. As the article mentions, even cats can represent their organism.

    What I am talking about in the article is not the representation or the model but our generalized model of the model, which allows us to consciously reflect upon our actions and make far-future plans. Humans have that, but cats apparently do not. The article goes into this in more detail.

    Thank you for bringing up the biographical memory, which does indeed get confused with self! This is something I need to write about.

  4. I've just noticed some errors in my reply. That's the problem with comments: they can't be edited easily.

    Actually, we do have to LEARN how to model our organism. Babies aren't born knowing how to walk. I should have said that we don't have to be TAUGHT how to model our organism.

    I see a few other problems with my replies. I won't go into details. Suffice it to say that my replies are not as well-considered as the articles.

  5. Thank you for your replies and clarifications. I'm exploring identity with these questions. I was reading Tim Tyler's new book on Memetics and am fairly confident I grasp Susan Blackmore 's stance on the self. I find that a self representation of my organism and history and place in life can in part be auto generated with out Culture. Because these things do not need to be taught but are learned thrue experience, they are not memetic.
    Many questions arise like: to what extent does a self (representation) require memes to be accurate and robust? What memes are these? What self (representation), the I, can be viewed as a true self and not a delusional self?

  6. The model of self does not “require” memes to be “accurate and robust”. However, to function fruitfully in civilized society we do need to have access to those memes. If we don't then we could get killed simply trying to cross the street!

    The question is: if we use those memes then to what extent will they use us? The more they use us, the less we can experience what we actually are.

    To put it another way: if you believe you are X, you will behave like X. And you might never realize that you're NOT actually X because you're too busy being X.

    The question arises: WHY can we be persuaded that we're X? This is one of the things I attempt to discover in this blog.

  7. "Why we can be persuaded?" is one question, how is another. If we take the meme's eye view, the answer must lie in evolutionary logic: replication, survival. We must remember that evolution is blind to the futur.

    The how is another story. Much has been written on this subject.

    Personally, I find that aquirering useful and correct memes is edifying.

  8. My primary concern is WHY, as expressed below:

    Why are we so easily hijacked by memes that can make us blow up other people, or tie ourselves in mental knots, or mistreat other animals, or generally behave in an insane manner? Why are we able to see that other people are hijacked while denying that we are, too?

    The answer seems to reside in the characteristics of certain software (memes) we have acquired. I've said we have "bugs" in our software, but it could also be said that we are like computers connected to the net without antivirus software.

    I don't want to push the analogy too far, because it would quickly get silly. But it may give you some idea of what I'm saying.

  9. The subject is worthwhile. For example how can so many Americans be evolution deniers.

    For my part I'll continu to explore non memetic self for the next few weeks.

  10. This is awesome! What a discovery,,,this site!

    Memes...closest association,lectures on semiotics, construction and deconstruction at art school many years ago. Not up to date on current thinking. Plan to read author mentioned above.

    Considering self... when mind spacious, calm, quiet...
    sense of self disappears... in that moment does not exist... only awareness...

    Daily life...very different... too easy to be absorbed in I-ness.
    Absorbtion: 2 kinds
    1. focused concentration... The mind perceives via the senses directed at will, and response arises according to intention or need. The mind is witness to the process, but no more aware of itself than the eye is aware of seeing.
    2. illusion... I am that. This identity is like what happens when if we watch a film.
    25 frames per second gives us the illusion of continuity, such as to construct a simulcrum of a reality.
    Perceptions string together with memory, so rapidly that we don't see the individual moments arise and pass.

    Because this is the normal state required for functioning in life, and because the feedback , an results tally well enough, we take this to be reality. This builds into the meme of self as agent acting in environment, and into qualifiers of specialisation, familiarity and habit. When projecting this construct as a handle for others to relate to, it becomes a persona, an identity, and an illusion to greater or lesser degree for many, myself included.

    If we attain a state witnessing individual perceptions as they arise, sense of I disappears.

    And yet identity is vital to a child learning to survive in the world, and it is the most crucial of losses in advanced dementia, when all sense of "who I am" disappears, and confusion leads to absolute dependence on others.

    By trying to put these thoughts into words, I hope to be able to ask,
    Have I understood the gist of your conversation?

  11. Hartfire, the Blogger software tells me you sent me a comment, which I read, but I don't see it here. I will attempt to contact you via the service by which you first contacted me.

    Yes, your email did understand the “gist” and even went beyond it. About the only negative thing I can say is that I'm not sure if you're distinguishing between the illusion of self — which is something that happens in the head — and the self meme which circulated in culture.

    This is arguably just a quibble but it deals with a matter I'm interested in keeping clear. It's the difference between one crazy person and an entire planet of crazy people.

  12. I wonder what it is that is deluded by or "pretends" itself.

    1. “Unknown,” your comment sounds to me like a standard pseudo-Advaita comment. If you have something more penetrating than a rote question, please share it with us.