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This page contains the complete text of Crisis of the Mind, the introduction to Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie.


This book contains a live mind virus. Do not read further unless you are willing to be infected. The infection may affect the way you think in subtle or not-so-subtle ways—or even turn your current world view inside out.


crisis of the mind

What a waste it is to lose one’s mind or not to have a mind is very wasteful.
—Dan Quayle,
mutating the memes
in the United Negro College Fund’s motto,
"A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

There is some good news in this book. So before I get into how mind viruses are spreading wildly throughout the world—infecting people with unwanted programming like the Michelangelo computer virus infects computers with self-destruct instructions—I’ll start with the good news.

The good news is that the long-awaited scientific theory unifying biology, psychology, and cognitive science is here. An interdisciplinary effort by scientists in all those fields over the last 20 years or so—really back to 1859 and Charles Darwin, if you like—has produced a new science called memetics.

The science of memetics is based on evolution. Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species by natural selection utterly transformed the field of biology. Scientists are now applying modern evolutionary theory to the way the mind works, the way people learn and grow, the way culture progresses. In so doing, the field of psychology will ultimately be as transformed by the scientists researching memetics as biology was by Darwin.

For those of us who yearn to understand ourselves, learning about memetics gives us a huge amount of satisfaction. I also believe that people who understand memetics will have an increasing advantage in life, especially in preventing themselves from being manipulated or taken advantage of. If you better understand how your mind works, you can better navigate through a world of increasingly subtle manipulation.

Now the bad news. The bad news is that this book raises more questions than it answers. In particular, memetics has uncovered the existence of viruses of the mind, but gives us few insights into what to do about them.

Viruses of the mind have been with us throughout history, but are constantly evolving and changing. They are infectious pieces of our culture that spread rapidly throughout a population, altering people’s thoughts and lives in their wake. They include everything from relatively harmless mind viruses, such as miniskirts and slang phrases, to mind viruses that seriously derail people’s lives, such as the cycle of unwed mothers on welfare, the Crips and Bloods youth gangs and the Branch Davidian religious cult. When these pieces of culture are ones we like, there’s no problem. However, as the Michelangelo computer virus programs computers with instructions to destroy their data, viruses of the mind can program us to think and behave in ways that are destructive to our lives.

This is the most surprising and most profound insight from the science of memetics: your thoughts are not always your own original ideas. You catch thoughts—you get infected with them, both directly from other people and indirectly from viruses of the mind. People don’t seem to like the idea that they aren’t in control of their thoughts. The reluctance of people to even consider this notion is probably the main reason the scientific work done so far is not better known. As we’ll see, ideas people don’t like have a hard time catching on.

Further compounding the problem, you don’t immediately know whether the programming you get from a given mind virus is harmful or beneficial. Nobody every joined a religious cult with the intention of getting brainwashed, moving to Guyana, and committing suicide. When the teenage Bill Gates caught the poker-playing mind virus at Harvard, was that harmful because it kept him from his studies? Or was it beneficial because it helped sway his decision to drop out, start Microsoft, and become a multibillionaire?

paradigm shift

Every so often, the world of science experiences something called a paradigm shift. That happens when one of the basic, underlying assumptions we’ve been living with changes, such as when we shifted from looking at the universe as revolving around the earth to the earth revolving around the sun. Another shift occurred when Einstein discovered the relationships between space and time and between energy and matter. Each of these paradigm shifts took some time to penetrate the scientific community, and even longer to become accepted by the general public.

Viruses of the mind, and the whole science of memetics, represent a major paradigm shift in the science of the mind.

Because understanding this new science involves a significant change in the way people think about the mind and culture, it has been difficult for people to grasp. As with any paradigm shift, memetics doesn’t fit into our existing way of looking at things, of understanding the world.

The trick to learning a new paradigm is to set aside your current one while you’re learning rather than attempt to fit the new knowledge into your existing model. It won’t fit! If you’re willing to set aside your current thinking long enough to consider four concepts, some or all of which may be new to you, you’ll be rewarded with an understanding of memetics. With that understanding, I hope, comes a call to action for anyone concerned with the future of human life.

The first concept—the star of the show—is the meme, which I introduce in Chapter 1 and which plays a leading role throughout this book. The meme, which rhymes with "beam," is the basic building block of culture in the same way the gene is the basic building block of life. As I outline in Chapter 2, memes are not only the building blocks of culture on a large scale—making up countries, languages, religions—but also on a small scale: memes are the building blocks of your mind, the programming of your mental "computer."

Second is the concept of virus. It’s well known that viruses exist in biology and in the world of computers. Now we’ll see how they show up in the world of mind and culture, the world of memetics. In Chapter 3, I’ll draw parallels between the three different universes that viruses live in to show what we can expect from mind viruses in the future.

The third concept that contributes to this paradigm shift is evolution. Evolution is one of those words that many people use, thinking they are talking about the same thing, but really having different ideas of what evolution is and means. I’ll discuss scientists’ most current theory of evolution in Chapter 4, and how it applies to memes in Chapter 5.

The fourth concept necessary to understanding mind viruses is the new science of evolutionary psychology. This field examines the biases and mechanisms of our minds that evolved to support our survival and reproduction. Some of these biases take the form of psychological buttons that can be pushed to penetrate our mental defenses. I called this part of the book "Crisis of the Mind" rather than simply "Introduction" because the former pushes more buttons: it attracts more attention and more people will read it. I called this book Virus of the Mind rather than Introduction to Memetics for the same reason.

Currently a controversial topic, evolutionary psychology explores and explains many of the stereotypical differences between men and women, especially in the realm of mating behavior. Chapter 6 is about the mating part of evolutionary psychology; Chapter 7 covers the survival aspect.

Memetics builds on these four conceptual blocks to form a new paradigm of how culture evolved and is evolving. It illuminates a major decision point for humanity:

Will we allow natural selection to evolve us randomly, without regard for our happiness, satisfaction, or spirit? Or will we seize the reins of our own evolution and pick a direction for ourselves?

Memetics gives us the knowledge and power to direct our own evolution more than at any time in history. Now that we have that power, what will we do with it?

a threat to humanity

A mind virus is not spread by sneezing, like the flu, or by sex, like AIDS. It’s not a physical thing. Mind viruses are spread by something as simple as communicating. I discuss the ways we get programmed by mind viruses in Chapter 8. In a way, mind viruses are the price of one of the freedoms most dear to us: freedom of speech. The more freedom there is to put forth any communication, the more welcoming the environment for mind viruses.
Some mind viruses arise spontaneously, as I discuss in Chapters 9 and 10; some are created intentionally, as I cover in Chapter 11. But all of them share one thing in common:

Once created, a virus of the mind gains a life independent of its creator and evolves quickly to infect as many people as possible.

Viruses of the mind are not some far-off future worry like the sun burning out or the earth being hit by a comet. They are here with us now—have been with us since before recorded history—and they are evolving to become better and better at their job of infecting us. We are being infected in some new ways—television, popular music, sales techniques—but also in very ancient ways—education, religious teachings, even talking to our closest friends. Our parents unwittingly infected us when we were kids. If you have children, chances are you are spreading the viruses to them every day.

Read a newspaper? Catch a mind virus. Listen to the radio? Catch a mind virus. Hang out with your friends and shoot the breeze about nothing in particular? Catch one mind virus after another. If your life isn’t going the way you would like, you can bet mind viruses are playing a large part. Having relationship problems? Mind viruses take over parts of your brain and divert you from what would give you long-term happiness in a relationship. Having trouble in your job or career? Mind viruses cloud your future and steer you along a career path that supports their agenda, not your quality of life.

Cult religions are springing up everywhere, the result of more and more powerful mind viruses. These cults take control of people’s minds and make members engage in bizarre behavior ranging from odd rituals to mass suicide. If you think you’re immune, remember: nobody ever set out intentionally to join a cult and have their mind taken over. It’s the work of tricky and pernicious mind viruses. And once the founder of the cult starts the process, the virus of the mind takes on a life of its own.

Because of mass media and direct elections, the U.S. and other governments are becoming more and more subject to infection by mind viruses. A politician today cannot be elected without coming up with an effective image that pushes people’s buttons and gets the votes. "We’re having a crisis and only I can fix it," they say, or, "Those other guys have caused all these problems; surely any change is better than what we’ve got!" Politicians’ well-crafted images are hooks into some of the most elaborate and pervasive mind viruses infecting society today.

What brand of soft drink do you buy? The ones that sell the most cost twice as much as unadvertised store brands. The extra money goes into television advertising, sending out the spores of ever more penetrating mind viruses that literally take control of your mind and make you push your shopping cart over to their shelf. Successfully programming your mind to believe that you prefer that brand, advertising agencies are among the most brazen and calculating of the mind virus instigators.

The unchecked spread of mind viruses shows up most alarmingly in the state of our children today. Starting with the inner cities and quickly spreading, the mind viruses infecting many children are pushing them into hopelessness, single motherhood, and gang warfare. Many children seem to be losing their sense of values and taking off in some very unsettling directions. Chapter 12 discusses the possibility of disinfection for us and our children.

my agenda

Let me tell you right now, I have an agenda in writing this book, and that agenda is to make a difference in people’s lives. Some of the content in this book could be used for self-improvement. You might not expect a book about science to include ideas from the self-development field, but the science of memetics deals with the mind, with people’s lives. Understanding memetics can naturally help increase the quality of people’s lives.

In the first place, I would never have written this book—or my first book, Getting Past OK—if I had not intentionally disinfected myself of many of the memes I got as I grew up and reprogrammed myself with new memes. What new memes would you choose to reprogram yourself with, given the chance? That’s entirely up to you. I had no idea what that even meant when I started this research. Now that I do, I choose to program myself with memes that support my values in life rather than ones that support the agendas of viruses of the mind. You can do that or something different. But you won’t have the option to do anything like that unless you understand memetics.

The reason I’m writing this book is that I really enjoy making a difference in people’s lives. My agenda in writing Virus of the Mind is to do just that. I believe that knowledge of memetics is important, and so I’m spreading it. I’m not just writing this book as an intellectual exercise. Although this book is about science, it’s obviously not a scientific text. It’s designed with an intention, and that is to consciously spread the new paradigm of memetics because I think it’s important.

Consciously spreading ideas you consider important is one way to combat mind viruses.

Have you ever wondered why life seems so complicated today, more complicated and stressful year after year? One reason is the ever-evolving army of mind viruses, taking a greater and greater share of your mind, diverting you from your pursuit of happiness and due to have an even greater effect on the next generation.

Ever wonder why, with greater and greater progress and technology, life doesn’t seem to get simpler, but just the reverse? Every time you’re exposed to a new virus of the mind, your mind takes on just a little more stress, a little more confusion.

People are flocking to everything from psychotherapy to the New Age movement to try to relieve the crushing burden of stress. Doctors are more and more certain that excess stress is our No. 1 killer, but experts disagree on what causes stress and how to cure it. The medical community talked of stressed-out "Type A" and laid-back "Type B" personalities, with no clear idea of what caused someone to have one or the other. And even the "Type B’s" had stress-related symptoms sometimes. The new science of memetics gives much insight into the problem of stress.

Taking over bits of your mind and pulling you in different directions, mind viruses distract you from what’s most important to you in life and cause confusion, stress, and even despair.

They infect your mind, programming you with directions that point you away from where you want to go. Since this all happens unconsciously, all you’re aware of is that, as you grow older, life becomes more stressful, less fun, more of a drag, and less meaningful. You may feel your motivation slipping away. You may get less excited about things than you used to. These are some of the effects of infection by a virus of the mind, an infection we cannot avoid entirely short of living in complete isolation from birth.

You can, however, begin to disinfect yourself. My hope is that the understanding people gain from this book will be a big first step in that disinfection. But it takes a bit of effort to teach yourself a new paradigm.

birth of a new paradigm

It’s always been hard for scientists to communicate their ideas to the general public. Science, by its very nature, is an artificial selection of ideas based on rigorous testing of their usefulness rather than on people’s gut feelings. As such, new scientific ideas tend to rub people the wrong way at first and produce predictable reactions. When Charles Darwin first proposed his ideas on natural selection in 1859, there were several stages of public reaction, stages that any revolutionary new scientific idea seems to go through before becoming accepted:

1. Complacency/Marginalization. At first, the new theory is seen as an off-the-wall idea: quaint, but not a serious threat to the dominant world view—perhaps a simple variant of some already known theory. Memetics is graduating from this stage to the next as I write this. Editors of The New York Times Magazine of Jan. 22, 1995, picked up on the growing use of the word meme and mildly attempted to marginalize it: "A skeptic might wonder what the notion of a meme adds to the paradigm of cultural evolution. Perhaps there’s nothing new under the sun." By the end of this book, readers will discover that rather than adding to the existing paradigm of cultural evolution, memetics itself is a new and more powerful paradigm.

2. Ridicule. Complacency fades as the new idea refuses to die, resulting in ridicule by people who clearly and laughingly see that it’s inconsistent with something they hold to be true. In Darwin’s case, contemporaries laughed at Darwin’s inability to see the necessity of a Supreme Designer doing the selecting. Darwin was frustrated by his seeming inability to communicate this new paradigm. Similar ridicule of memetics is seen from time to time in the few places memetics is discussed, such as the alt.memetics newsgroup on the Internet.

3. Criticism. As the new idea gains acceptance, people who have held conflicting world views for some time, or who have their reputation invested in old paradigms, take off their gloves. Darwinism is still being attacked today by creationists who believe it conflicts with their Truth. It’s possible that this book will touch off serious criticism of memetics. If it does, we shouldn’t worry; it’s the nature of a paradigm shift.

4. Acceptance. Finally, enough people make the leap to the new paradigm that it gains psychological as well as intellectual acceptance. Those who understand the new ideas are no longer as alone and unloved as Columbus among the flat-earth believers. The new world agrees on the new paradigm. Peer pressure starts to work for it rather than against it. It’s begun to be taught in elementary schools. Scientists can move on to their next challenge.

Our minds, it seems, are not well equipped to understand how they themselves work. You, in fact, may at first be very confused or distracted, or suddenly get tired as you read this, or even get angry just from reading these words. Although right now you may think this statement absurd, those feelings and symptoms are actually the defense mechanisms of mind viruses. They have evolved to be very protective of the parts of your mind they have stolen, and any attempts to cleanse yourself of them can trigger reactions.

If you experience one or more of these reactions while reading this book, don’t worry: the reaction will pass if you ride it out. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with a powerful tool for your future and the future of humanity.

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Last Edited: May 03, 2000
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© 1996 Richard Brodie. All rights reserved.