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Education II

Education II Feature Article

Learning, Memes and Foresight

Bob Day, January, 2012.


In considering the issues of Foresight and the education system I am least interested in education of Foresight as a subject within the formal education system. I am very much in favour of many more people learning the benefits of the practice of Foresight. I suspect however, that if Foresight were to be included in the formal education curricula, few people would learn much about it. In my opinion, Foresight is best learned in a “learning by doing” mode, in the company of small groups of co-learners and co-practitioners and in stimulating, interactive environments that differ dramatically from those entrenched in the formal education system.

When considering both Foresight and education, two areas that interest me greatly are:

  • The relationship between the way humans learn and the many Foresight processes and tools, which takes us into a multi-disciplinary area including cognitive science, psychology, anthropology and others.
  • The use of Foresight to consider a range of possible futures involving transformed education systems that would be much more productive and suited to the needs of each individual learner, rather than perpetuating processes much better suited to the needs of the administrators of these huge nationwide systems, as opposed to the needs of the learners.

Clearly, the above two areas are linked, with the former being more fundamental than the latter. It is some aspects of the former that I will briefly discuss here.

Learning and Foresight
It is my contention that the current formal education system just about anywhere on the planet takes little notice of the latest research into how the human mind works, and in particular how it best learns through the various stages of life. Yet I argue that understanding how we learn at the individual and societal levels is crucial not only for our survival as a species, but also for the maintenance of the planet’s biosphere as we know it. It is also fascinating! This is an extensive, multidisciplinary, and controversial area of research, so what I am writing here is inevitably only in the form of brief summaries with significant gaps.

What is so special about learning? Even a slug learns! Most creatures instinctively know how to run from a predator, stay close to a potential sexual partner, and seek out and utilise a variety of sources of food and drink. And many of them can learn variations on these basic activities. But they are learning what they should or should not DO. What is amazing about the human animal is that from our very earliest days we are driven not just to know what to do and what not to do but also to seek reasons why. No other creature has anything like our instinctive drive to understand whatever is happening around us. As well as understanding the bases of what we (think we) know, we go further to actively seek out and begin to understand what we don't know. Our fascination with the unknown and with the workings of the unknown is unique (at least on this planet)!

One of the saddest things about the formal education system, especially at the primary and secondary levels, is the tendency to teach in ways that imply that we humans have reached the stage where we know almost everything there is to know, and that all the pupils need to do to become “well educated” (or at least to pass the exams) is to learn what we already (think we) know. But our minds have not evolved to be force fed large amounts of information, often with poor contextualization, especially without clear indications as to why this information is useful to the learner. Instead, this appears to be the perfect recipe for boring and disengaging young minds. In contrast, our minds have evolved to learn by seeking, investigating, experimenting and reflecting (usually in small groups). What fascinates us, even when we are a few months old, is what we don't know – the human mind enjoys mystery.

Even to this day, and contrary to the way we are educated in our early years, there is much more about nature, the universe and ourselves that we don't know than we do know. We have evolved to pursue what we don’t know (the mysterious), a process which is often great fun, and can be very rewarding. The rest of this discussion is concerned with bringing together two of the deepest mysteries that continue to challenge humankind:

  • The future, because of its very nature, will always remain mysterious to us no matter how sophisticated we become.
  • The workings of the human mind present another highly mysterious area. The human mind is by far the most complex and powerful device (whether natural or man made) on the planet, and we all have one. Yet most people spend almost no time on understanding how our minds work, and how we might improve their use.

I’ll deal with the second mystery first, by describing an easy to use model that may well be able to set anyone on the road to better understanding of the working of their own minds (and those of others).

Memes and Memetics1
According to Daniel Dennet’s classic book of 1991, “Consciousness Explained”2 , memes and memetics are fundamental to the evolution of human consciousness:

“Three media – genetic evolution, phenotypic plasticity, and memetic evolution – have contributed to the design of human consciousness, each in turn, and at increasing rates of speed. Compared with phenotypic plasticity, which has been around for millions of years, significant memetic evolution is an extremely recent phenomenon, becoming a powerful force only in the last hundred thousand years, and exploding with the development of civilization less than ten thousand years ago. It is restricted to one species, homo sapiens.”

A good introduction to the more practical aspects of memes and memetics – “a controversial new field that transcends psychology, biology, anthropology, and cognitive science” - is Richard Brodie’s book (1996), called “Virus of the mind: the new science of the meme” (see also www.memecentral.com). I have selected and summarised a few extracts here from both books to provide some of the basic concepts, and ideas that are particularly useful to this discussion.

Our ancestors, like us, took pleasure in various modes of relatively undirected self exploration – stimulating oneself repeatedly and seeing what happened. Because of the plasticity of the brain, coupled with the innate restlessness and curiosity that leads us to explore every nook and cranny of our environment (of which our own bodies are such an important and ubiquitous element), it is not surprising, in retrospect, that we hit upon strategies of self stimulation or self manipulation that led to the inculcation of habits and dispositions that radically altered the internal communicative structure of our brains, and that these discoveries became part of the culture – memes – that were then made available to all.

One of the first major steps a human brain takes in the massive process of postnatal self-design is to get itself adjusted to the local conditions that matter the most. It doesn’t matter whether this process is called learning or differential development; it happens so swiftly and effortlessly that there is little doubt that the human genotype includes many adaptations that are specifically in place to enhance this self-design, including language acquisition. This has all happened very fast in evolutionary terms.

Once our brains have built the entrance and exit pathways for the vehicles of language, they swiftly become parasitised by entities that have evolved to thrive in just such a niche: memes. These new replicators are, roughly, ideas. Not the “simple ideas” of Locke and Hume (the idea of red, or the idea of sound or hot or cold), but the sort of complex ideas that form themselves into distinct memorable units – such as the ideas of:

  • wheel
  • wearing clothes
  • alphabet
  • calendar
  • calculus
  • perspective drawing
  • Impressionism

Intuitively these are more or less identifiable cultural units, but we can say something more precise about how we draw the boundaries: the units are the smallest elements that replicate themselves with reliability and fecundity.

The fundamental theory of evolution by natural selection is neutral regarding the differences between memes and genes; these are just different kinds of replicators evolving in different media at different rates. And just as the genes for animals could not come into existence on this planet until the evolution of plants had paved the way (creating the oxygen rich atmosphere and ready supply of convertible nutrients), so the evolution of memes could not get started until the evolution of animals had paved the way by creating a species – homo sapiens – with brains that could provide shelter, and habits of communication that could provide transmission media for memes.

The first rule of memes, as for genes, is that replication is not necessarily for the good of anything; replicators flourish that are good at… replicating! – for whatever reason. The important point is that there is no necessary connection between a meme’s replicative power, its “fitness” from its point of view, and its contribution to our fitness (by whatever standard we judge that). While some memes definitely manipulate us into collaborating on their replication in spite of our judging them useless or ugly or even dangerous to our health and welfare, many of the memes that replicate themselves do so not just with our blessings, but because of our esteem for them. There can be little controversy that some memes are good from our perspective, and not just from their own perspective as selfish self replicators: for example cooperation, music, writing, environmental awareness.

However, to human beings each meme vehicle is a potential friend or foe, bearing a gift that will enhance our powers or a gift horse that would distract us, burden our memories, or derange our judgement. We may compare these invaders of our eyes and ears to the parasites that enter our bodies by other routes: there are the beneficial parasites such as the bacteria in our digestive systems without which we could not digest our food, the tolerable parasites, not worth the trouble of elimination, and the pernicious invaders that are hard to eradicate such as the HIV.

We (homo sapiens) would not survive unless we had a better-than-chance habit of choosing the memes that help us. We can rely, as a general rule of thumb, on the coincidence that the good memes are the ones that are also the good replicators.

Memes now spread around the world at the speed of light, and replicate at rates that make even fruit flies and yeast cells look glacial in comparison. They leap promiscuously from vehicle to vehicle, and from medium to medium, and are proving to be virtually unquarantinable. Memes, like genes, are potentially immortal, but, like genes, they depend on the existence of a continuous chain of physical vehicles, such as stone monuments and books.

The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artefact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes. The avenues for entry and departure are modified to suit local conditions, and strengthened by various artificial devices that enhance fidelity and prolixity of replication: native Chinese minds differ dramatically from native French minds, and literate minds differ from illiterate minds. What memes provide in return to the organisms in which they reside is an incalculable store of advantages – with some Trojan horses thrown in. The most striking differences in human prowess depend on microstructural differences (in their brains) induced by the various memes that have entered them and taken up residence.

There are certain tendencies we have because we are a product of nature. These tendencies support our survival and reproduction. They are things like our sex drive, and our desire to breathe, eat, sleep, and so forth. These can be given many classifications, but for the purposes of this document we are calling them instincts. In modern times these prehistoric instincts often don't work any better than a dear’s instinct to freeze in the face of oncoming headlights.

But we can learn. Everything we do that is not instinctive is the result of learning, which Brodie equates to programming. Brodie argues that we are programmed by memes, and that memes are very powerful. Most memes that people are programmed with are acquired without any conscious intent (often when we are very young). They simply “infect” us, become embedded in our subconscious, and from then on we live our lives under the influence of their programme.

Brodie argues that there are three ways of categorising memes that are particularly useful.

  • Distinction memes: distinctions are one kind of meme which provide ways of carving up the world by categorising or labelling things. Importantly, the distinction memes we are programmed with control what information we perceive. It makes reality look different to each person.
  • Strategy memes: strategies are beliefs about cause and effect. When we are programmed with a strategy meme, we unconsciously believe behaving in a certain way is likely to produce a certain effect. That behaviour may trigger a chain of events that results in spreading the strategy meme to another mind. We often don't realise that we are programmed with strategy memes, or that the ones we have are often ineffective. Understanding the strategy memes we are programmed with gives us the power to consciously choose which strategies to follow.
  • Association memes: associations are connections between memes (memes about memes). When we are programmed with an association meme the presence of one thing triggers a thought or feeling about something else. This causes a change in our behaviour, which can ultimately spread the meme to another mind.

Brodie argues that memes can and do run our lives, probably to a far greater degree than most of us realise, and often from our subconscious.

Foresight and Memetics
So why am I promoting the idea that we should be more closely linking Foresight and Memetics?

As I hope the above extracts show, Memetics provides a pretty powerful, yet easy to understand model of how each of us thinks. It seems to resonate with most individuals (whether lay or academic) because they can quickly identify in their own thought processes at least some of all three types of memes mentioned above. Despite its controversial nature in the view of some academics, it is a model which is easily understood by all, and quickly provides insights which are constructive and useful. At the very least, it can set anyone on the path to “thinking about thinking”.

In my experience, there are two well entrenched, but usually subconscious (sets of) strategy memes3 in almost every corner of most societies:

  • The future is already out there, waiting to happen – predetermined, e.g. “it’s in the stars”. Humans cannot change the future.
  • We (humans) cannot (or should not) change the way we think. Our existing macro-systems (whether military, religious, political, educational, etc.) have “stood the test of time”, created by those older (and therefore wiser) than us, so who are we to suggest changes.

Both are not only wrong, but are harmful because they fall into the category of “self-fulfilling prophecies”. They appear to the majority to be proven (over and over again) by the historical record. But how do we change so many minds, and what do we want to replace these flawed strategy memes with?

Memetics provides us with a tool for not only modelling subcomponents of our thought processes, but also for identifying those areas that we would change if we could. Once individuals realise that many of their decision making processes are based on the subconscious interactions of memes ingested long ago (sometimes without their conscious approval), they start to feel uncomfortable. If these memes haven’t been consciously screened to be in alignment with each individual’s conscious moral, value and logic systems, then they need to be identified, closely examined for alignment, and if they don’t pass this test, they must go! Memes provide the best model I have seen to date that enables us all (not just the elites) to investigate our subconscious world and to identify what needs to be changed.

But surely it would be unwise to embark on such changes before we know what the replacement memes could or should be? And this is where the future changes from being a mystery beyond human scope, to becoming a solution to our risk averse (but often no longer valid) traditional systems. My experience of Foresight4 is that, by considering the wide range of possible futures “out there”:

  • It can be used to help people identify their “entrenched” memes (which may well no longer be valid, or aligned with their value systems).
  • It can empower them to “change their minds”, not just in the short term, but permanently by rejecting any dysfunctional memes.
  • It can give legitimacy to the practice of continuing to “change their minds” based on the latest evidence that life presents to them.
  • It can be used to develop the missing link – the missing “replacement memes” – which usually emerge in so many forms and associations when each individual allows themselves to consider any particular aspect of the future.
  • It can encourage each individual to allow these “replacement memes” to be consciously ingested into their thought processes with their full approval and understanding. Such memes are unlikely to be dysfunctional or non-aligned.

So, to summarise, for each individual and society in general to experience the transformation we all appear to be yearning for, we need better understanding and control of both our minds and our future. Hence, I wonder whether the combination of Foresight and Memetics might not be particularly rewarding, both for researchers and practitioners.

  • Memetics gives us an easy to use model of what minds do, what they use as major thought components (memes), and how some of them are likely to be harmful, yet often remain undetected and highly influential over our actions.
  • Foresight, by pulling us out of our habitual, present-based thought processes, gives us both a process for identifying (surfacing) those dysfunctional memes and a mechanism for generating a new set of replacement memes based on a range of attractive futures.

What do you think? Does this idea have a future?


1See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme; and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memetics.
2See also: http://sciencestage.com/v/967/daniel-dennett-harmless-harmful-and-helpful-memes-the-digital-planet-part-2.html; and http://cogprints.org/258/1/memeimag.htm;
3Some would call these “memoplexes”.
4I should emphasise that the most successful Foresight exercises I have been involved with have used small groups of people (2 - 7) from many sectors and/or disciplines, but with a shared theme of some kind. The levels of trust and constructive communication that characterised the majority of such groups is startling, and, I suggest, tells us something important about how humans prefer to work, learn, and create.

Dr Bob Day, Founder and Co-Director at Non-Zero-Sum Development

Read more about the author and his view on being a futurist.


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