10 August 2008

Could memes cause disease?

Have you ever had a fuck-me moment? This is an instant in your life when the scales suddenly drop from your eyes. Something suddenly makes sense that was previously perplexing. Darwin must have had such a moment when the concept of evolution first crossed his mind. Everything he had observed must suddenly have made sense. After the initial fuck-me moment there follows a period when you think through the flash of lightning that has struck. In a true fuck-me moment the more you think the more it makes sense. For Darwin the thinking phase took rather a long time.

Dr Grumble has almost had one of these episodes. The bolt of lightning struck him this morning. He is now at the evaluation stage and he is not yet sure that it all makes sense.

So what is Dr G on about? How could a meme cause disease? How could this be a bolt of lightning to disturb Dr Grumble's Sunday morning?

First let's consider what a meme is. Dr Grumble was not very familiar with the term until recently. It seems it was coined by Richard Dawkins and it refers to any learned feeling, thought or behaviour. Like genes memes can be transferred from person to person or from groups to groups. Tunes, religion, fashion and habits are examples of memes. The whole idea that memes could cause disease is itself a meme. It's not actually Dr Grumble's idea he picked it up from somebody else (who deserves credit but should remain anonymous unless he wishes to reveal himself).

Memes can propagate. In many ways they are like an infectious agent. How could they operate pathologically? Let's take Islamic fanaticism as an example. Some British Moslems have had their religion perverted and they have taken to suicidal terrorism. These people used not to be out to kill us but now, sadly, they are. The infectious agent has been ideas generated by clerics. They have been infected with a radicalisation meme. Does that make sense?

OK, perhaps suidical terrorism is not a disease but it does have a high mortality which is pretty much like a disease. How could memes cause real disease? Are there any examples? Dr Grumble thinks there may be. When young Edward Grumble had glandular fever he was quite unwell. The Grumble family was bombarded with predictions of prolonged ill health and tiredness from various 'helpful' people. But were these self-fulfilling prophesies? Mrs Grumble told Edward he would get better. No fatigue meme was implanted into his brain. And young Edward did get better and there was no prolonged fatigue. He is now fighting fit.

OK n=1 but that was just to make a point. Throughout history there have been a wide variety of bizarre diseases that doctors have not understood. These diseases may start quite quickly. And they may disappear. They come and go like fashions. Occasionally large groups of people have them all at once. ME epidemics spring to mind. Anything that comes in epidemics one would think has an infectious cause but could the infectious agent be a meme? Could there be an ME meme?

Dr Grumble is still getting his thoughts clear on this one but it seems to make quite a lot of sense. If you can make people kill themselves and others with a meme surely you could make them ill.


BenefitScroungingScum said...

I'm sure you're on to something with that concept, but I doubt it'll make you too popular with those diagnosed with ME. On the other hand if you come up with any way of getting my body to believe it's not fatigued I will love you forever!
I wondered if you had seen this http://bonetired.blogspot.com/2008/07/patient-confidentiality-and-data.html
Basically the PCT sold patient data to an American co, and sent those involved postcards advising if they did not want to be involved they had 2 weeks to opt out insisting it was all in the patient's interests.

The Shrink said...

I'm absolutely certain you're right on this one.

At one extreme we see folk with a formal diagnosis of hypochondriacal disorder or persistent somatoform pain disorder or a conversion disorder. But between symptom free and the symptom burden that's attracting formal psychiatric diagnosis there's a whole slew of people in between.

Many many of these folk seem to have ideas, core beliefes, schema, paradigms, call it what you will. But memes have influenced these.

Thus, memes have influenced their health.

Dr Grumble said...

Thanks benefitscroungingscum. I have popped that link into my shared items.

NorthernMedic said...

Are you sure that this is a new idea?

Is this not seen in the worried well, not true hypochondriacs,who become convinced through outlets such as the media amongst others that they have an illness? Like telling someone they could be ill to such an extent that they eventually truly believe that they are.

Then because of psychosomatic mechanisms develop symptoms?

Or can it be the other way round where people have random meaningless symptoms that point towards nothing and then attribute them towards things that may be receiving some ill attention and bad press due to supposed health risks?

an example would be the people with lethargy or headaches or random pain who are now attributing this to the use wifi antennae and electromagnetic fields as they have now started to pick up bad press,which is probably unfounded and more than likely used to sell papers.

Same thing or am I clueless?

Dr Grumble said...

Thinking of the infectious agent for certain diseases as a pathological meme is certainly a new concept to Dr G and he thinks that it is helpful.

To some extent there are parallels with conventional infections. For example if you expose individuals to an infection not all will get it. Presumably the same might apply to, say, an ME meme.

Where do new meme-mediated diseases come from and why do they disappear? Why do some like ME stay around while others like total allergy syndrome have only a fleeting existence.

Is the press the initial source of the infection? Could new meme diseases be prevented?

What makes some memes take hold? What makes individuals susceptible? How can a meme be eradicated from an infected person? How are memes propagated? When a new meme disease catches on can anything be done to stop it spreading?

In other words while some of this may not be new it is a different way of thinking about things. But it is hardly something Dr G would write about in a learned journal. That’s why he has a blog.

NorthernMedic said...

I need to say that I am finding this all very fascinating. Especially since you have indulged me by explicitly stating some of the question that you have.

Never even crossed my mind :s (worried face smiley in case you were wondering)

I think that the media have a massive role in the creation and propagation of pathological memes and that individuals who are susceptible are becoming victims of them.

They may be susceptible for a variety of reasons; psychiatric,psychological,environmental,cultural and genetic predisposition.

With regards to how to prevent them,seeing as the other questions seem quite unanswerable at this time, that a solution be be present in the form of education for patients so as to inform them and combat against misinformation and hype or simply to combat misinformation at its source within the media.Easier said than done.

I always thought scaremongering was unhealthy and now we could be seeing the fallout from year of the vile stuff.

Anonymous said...

You need to look up more about glandular fever.

Geoffrey W. Rutledge, MD, PhD said...

Hi, I think your blog is terrific, and I would like to feature you on Wellsphere (http://www.wellsphere.com). Would you drop me an email?
Good health!
Geoffrey W. Rutledge, MD, PhD