Neuronal News: What’s our obsession with angsty brain memes?

A drawing of a person with their head exploding, emitting rainbow light rays. Behind the person, there is a background of purple galaxies.
(Max Ranney • The Student Life)

Ever wondered why there are so many memes about the brain with dark, self-effacing undertones? 

For example: this one and this one and this one.  

These memes are so widely shared that journalists over at major media outlets like New York Magazine and Wired have made recent attempts to explain them.

But no one has explained that this bizarre trend combines Gen Z’s nihilistic outlook with a common tendency to defect to a scientific understanding of the mind as one with the brain. 

I’m sure many of us think of the mind and brain as one. After all, even though some philosophers might want to block this view from sight, it remains the most influential one among cognitive scientists. 

According to renowned philosopher of mind Jaegwon Kim in his aptly named book “Philosophy of Mind,” the cognitive sciences require “appeal to lower-level physical-biological sciences,” a view which is the sciences’ “default.” 

And though there’s yet to be any study showing what Gen Z thinks about the mind-body problem, I assume this view is probably the default for a good number of us. Why?

A recent study conducted across 25 countries about which institutions are most trusted by different age groups found approximately half of the Gen Z age group said scientific institutions. So, it’s reasonable to assume that around half of us trust the default position of scientific institutions when it comes to the mind, as well. 

And when you look at trending Gen Z memes about mental activity, it becomes clear how this default view is seen by many of us.  

For instance, check out this example of one common brain meme format. “Whomst’d” — an artificial contraction of “who” — is pictured next to the brain that appears to have the most wrinkles and synapses. What else would those electric-looking lines shooting outside the brain represent? If whomst’d were a real word, it would involve knowledge of the most number of words compared to all the other contractions that are listed. So one might presume “whomst’d” requires the most intellectual prowess to master in use, compared to shorter contractions.

But why is it next to the brain on the bottom? The current consensus is that the more brain wrinkles there are, the greater the brain’s surface area and the more synapses there are. More synapses means increased connectivity between the brain’s functional regions and faster information processing.

So you might think: the wrinklier the brain, the wryer the person. 

But that’s not quite how intelligence works — the countless scientific theories that do seek to explain it are far more complex and do not all solely rely on physical mechanisms. 

Nonetheless, this consensus about brain wrinkles and information processing speeds seems to have taken a chokehold in the Gen Z meme-sphere. Now, you can probably understand the “smooth brain” memes as well — even as their logic might not be the most sound. 

But there’s another element all these memes share. 

The source of our mental anguish? 

Not enough brain cells! Wrinkles! Neurotransmitters! Synapses, etc.!

The memes strip down strife to the inevitability of our internally flawed hardwire. We laugh not because our generation has managed to avoid more suffering than previous ones, but because we understand its source better. Younger Americans trust scientific authority more than older Americans, so more of us are likely to see the source of mental suffering, like all other mental activity, as the brain — the default view of cognitive science. But since this place is within, it is easy to feel like we must be intrinsically cursed — hence the tragic overtone.

As a Vice article explains of a 2021 study of over 10,000 Gen Zers across 10 countries: 

“Fifty-six percent of people surveyed said they agreed with the statement that humanity is doomed, while 75 percent said they believed the future was frightening.”

So it’s not a surprise that many of our brain memes represent this outlook. 

For example, check this meme out. There is a burning, anthropomorphized McDonald’s Happy Meal box that was in style during our childhood. I don’t think it’s a stretch the creator intended the Happy Meal to represent someone from Gen Z. It seems happy to be meeting its end — which is presumably Gen Z’s joy at the “infection” finally reaching the brain.

Then there’s this meme, last in the slide. A character from “Rick and Morty,” a show almost everyone in Gen Z has heard of, is accompanied by text describing dissociation — a condition with neurological underpinnings wherein one loses touch with reality — as blissful. I say “our” since this was also posted by another generic Gen Z meme account.

I’m not even remotely suggesting anyone embrace this nihilistic outlook. But unfortunately, I have a word limit, so I can’t offer existential counseling.  

Hannah Frasure PO ’24 often sits around pretending to be The Thinker is a philosophy major who began as a neuroscience major. 

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