Viral Assimilation: How Memes Encode Themeselves on our Brains





Heylighen details four stages of a meme’s infection cycle: assimilation, retention, expression and transmission. The first step, assimilation, is where a meme imprints its code onto the subject’s short term memory.

Short term memory is encoded by humans via auditory means (rather than semantic understanding like long term memory) by route of the phonological loop. When we read words, or see an object we silently articulate the words or the name of the object. Much like repeating a phone number to remember it, our articulatory rehearsal component repeats what we’ve just articulated on a loop (about 1.5 seconds long), preventing it from decaying. When judging a meme’s potential success at imprinting on short term memory, 2 factors come into play:

  1. Phonological Similarity
    Lists of words that sound similar are more difficult to remember than words that sound different.

  2. Word Length
    Lists of short words are remembered better than lists of long words.

In his paper, Heylighen lists 7 criteria necessary for a meme to be successful at this stage:

  1. Distinctiveness
  2. Novelty
  3. Simplicity
  4. Coherence
  5. Self-justification
  6. Formality
  7. Authority

For our viral purposes I feel we can combine the first two into one “novel” criteria, and the second two in to a single “intuitive” criteria. Criterias 4, 5 and 6 from this list refer to an internal logic in the meme and its components, in that all parts should not only be clearly and logically presented and agree with each other, but there should be a syngery between the parts of a meme, each component justifying the others.

In a marketing context, the authority criteria has more to do with the process of seeding a campaign than with the content of the campaign.