Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
The medical theme of health news the past week was memes.
For those who don’t know, a “meme” is a unit of cultural replication, analogous to a gene, which of course is a unit of biological replication. A meme is an idea that catches on- and spreads among us. Introduced by Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford University and one of the world’s preeminent evolutionary biologists, in his seminal book of 1976, The Selfish Gene, the “meme” has caught on. It is, in a word, a meme.
Which brings us back to last week’s health and medical memes. First came the story of a YouTube phenomenon among kids called “the cinnamon challenge.” As you likely know, it is a widely replicating dare to swallow a teaspoon of cinnamon. This is, of course, entirely pointless and potentially dangerous- but has nonetheless spread like wildfire across a vast and highly flammable expanse of tween and teen brains. It is an idiotic meme.
There were also two studies about the influence what and when and how we eat has on one another. One study suggested that we snack in the presence of others who are snacking to make both them, and ourselves, feel at ease. The other study suggested that young women mimicked one another’s behavior at meal time- even to the point of synchronized chewing. Memes, it seems, are on the menu at meal time and snack time alike.
My view on the cinnamon challenge is nicely summed up by a poster I had hanging on the wall of my dorm room in college: “good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment.”
But while YouTube can unify legions of kids in propagating a pointless and potentially dangerous meme, it offers comparable potential in the other direction. Figuring out ways to make health and kindness and solidarity the centerpieces of engaging memes is a challenge for us all. My foundation has begun work on a program to deliver empowering messages about health via music videos to kids in the age group currently preoccupied with gagging on cinnamon. Here’s hoping…
As for social influences on eating: of course we find them when we look for them! We Homo sapiens are and always have been social animals, and eating has always been a social activity. Food is shared. What, when, and how much others of the ‘clan’ eat helps us know what’s reasonable, appropriate, and right. Mimicry of this kind likely has deep roots in anthropology, and perhaps even biology. If the young of a species don’t mimic the dietary patterns of the adults, they risk ingesting poisons, or starving. In the bluntest terms- we
learn what, when, and how to eat watching others of our kind do it.
That said, I’m not all that impressed by evidence of synchronized chewing when young women eat together. If two young women are having a meal together, they have a choice: talk, or chew. It may be that they synchronize chewing because at other times they are talking. It may all come down to: don’t talk with your mouth full!
That we are prone in general to eat too much, and all the wrong things, to fit in with others doing so cries out for a meme going the other way. Imagine the simple power of talking about our interest in being healthy and lean, and eating well to help get there- and asking others to help us. Simple candor about the importance, and challenge, of this effort could get us all a bit closer to the prize with a little help from our friends. Peer pressure doesn’t have to work against us.
And that’s what it all comes down to. Unlike genes, over which we do not have true mastery and are unlikely to any time soon- memes are of our own devising. We have the means to make them do what we want.
In unity, there is strength. (The expression is, of course, a meme.) But whether strength for good or ill, productivity or inanity, is up for grabs. Pondering the possible, I end with one last meme: hope springs eternal!
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com