Drugs are often thought of as chemical substances which alter normal bodily function. Addiction occurs when the body becomes dependent on this substance. Psychological addiction occurs when reward centers in the brain also reinforce the taking of the drug. This form of addiction though need not be rooted in a chemical substance.
Memes are often thought of in terms of viruses in how they can spread and infect the brains of others. Is there a way where we can think of memes as drugs?
Human physiology and psychology is designed to provide intrinsic rewards for certain types of behaviors. For example sex is pleasurable to encourage people to keep doing it. However there are now cultural practices that hijack the reward circuitry of our brains and bodies. These behaviors grow and spread because they are addictive, some have negative or deviant societal labeling, other are positive. Some form groups around the practices, other are solitary. While perhaps not sticking to the fundamental definition of meme as a behavior that is copied – it shares some similar impact on identity, group formation, disease model and addiction mechanisms that are of interest.
So let’s get to some examples. Since sex go the first mention it seems natural to list porn as the obvious example. Pornography “addiction” is increasingly recognized as a psychological phenomena. Other examples might include a particularly engaging TV show or series where viewers often act or claim that they are addicted. Gambling is a more serious well-recognized addiction. Just to show that it’s not all bad – physical exercise produces endorphins which can develop into a dependence. Colloquially the term “adrenaline junky” is well-known for people who seek thrills to stimulate hormone release.
The reason these can still be considered memes is that they keep popping up in society, commonly practiced if not directly copied. These are units of culture. The biggest difference is that these are not just “sticky” ideas. They are not shared out of convenience, or replicated without consequence – they take hold in identifiable ways and act more like drugs. A virus, benign or malicious just occupies and tries to move on. A drug proliferates more by locking in with individuals rather than by spreading rapidly.