The Mental Virus
Meme (pron. "meem")—A contagious information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the pattern. (Term coined by Richard Dawkins, by analogy with "gene".) (Wheelis, quoted in Hofstadter.)—from the Principia Cybernetica Web
Memes are intellectual or mental viruses that infect humanity with ideas, mental models, perceptions, experiences, principles, stories, cultural myths, and shared truths. Transmitted through books, films, music, art, and education, memes act much like biological viruses in how they are propagated.
It is through memes that children learn the concepts of danger, hot, ball, and red, among others, as well as the fundamentals of language such as the alphabet. Sayings or aphorisms, such as the one at the beginning of this article, are memes; if you share that quote with someone, you are spreading an intellectual virus.
When you use your skills to create stories and images that tap into the minds of your intended audience, you are accessing the power of memes. As a digital artist, the memes that you employ are visual or iconic in nature and have the power to access the embedded imagery that exists in the imagination.
In an article titled "Of Myth and Men," in the April 29, 1999, issue of Time magazine, author Bill Moyers interviewed George Lucas about his approach to storytelling in movies. The following excerpt from that article reveals the use of archetypal images (memes) to tap into the subconscious mind.
Moyers: The mesmerizing figure in the Phantom Menace to me is Darth Maul. When I saw him, I thought of Lucifer in Paradise Lost or the devil in Dante's Inferno. He's the Evil Other—but with powerful human traits.
Lucas: Yes, I was trying to find somebody who could compete with Darth Vader, who is now one of the most famous evil characters. So we went back into representations of evil. Not only the Christian, but also Hindu and other religious icons, as well as the monsters in Greek mythology.
Moyers: What did you find in all these representations?
Lucas: A lot of evil characters have horns. [Laughs]
Moyers: And does your use of red suggest the flames of hell?
Lucas: Yes. It's a motif that I've been using with the Emperor and the Emperor's Minions. I mean, red is an aggressive color. Evil is aggressive.
Moyers: Is Darth Maul just a composite of what you found in your research, or are we seeing something from your own imagination and experience?
Lucas: If you're trying to build an icon of evil, you have to go down into the subconscious of the human race over a period of time and pull out the images that equate to the emotion you are trying to project.
Before I saw Darth Maul fight, I knew that he was evil. I didn't have to see him in action to feel afraid of him and to secretly admire him. The memes in his visual representation evoked fear and evil, just as George Lucas hoped they would.
The good news is that if we learn how to engage the imagination, through the balanced use of implied and explicit meme-based imagery, we can create extraordinarily powerful imagery. But it is up to us to recover from our own addiction first.