Why Do Memes Make Us Happy?

We spoke with a psychologist to understand how it’s way beyond just a case of #ItMe.
Image: Pixabay/nikolabelopitov

A Meme—as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary—is “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media". They are literally everywhere: from the Mumbai Police Twitter handle to the darkest corners of the internet. We love them, we love to hate them, and we love to forward them. But why?

To find out, VICE sat down with with clinical psychologist Dr Kanan Khatau Chikhal, who for 16 years, has been analysing the human brain rewiring. She spoke with us on the science behind why memes make us so happy, and why we share them.


They make us feel like less alone
“Human beings need three things: love, self-esteem, and security. In our journey of seeking security, belongingness plays a very important role. If you read Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, you will find that belongingness is featured heavily. That’s why people relate to memes—because they resonate with them, which creates a sense of identification. We form groups, and this identification with the meme culture is largely perceived with a feeling of 'I’m not alone'."

"If you circulate memes and reach out to people, trust and social bonding will increase." Image: Dr. Kanan Khatua Chikhal.

They help us bond with others out there
You send out memes that resonate the most with you. Irrespective of whether you like or dislike a meme, if it didn’t impact you, you wouldn’t have touched that forward button. Let’s say, you shut your bedroom door. At that time, another door in the room also automatically vibrates even though you haven’t touched it. That’s resonance. Similarly, if you circulate a certain meme, it’s because it has resonated with some part of you at that moment. Else you wouldn’t have even touched that forward button.

There are conversational ways to bond with people as well. What really builds social relationships is trust, and trust comes from a sense of understanding and belongingness. You can initiate trust through verbal communication by asking people about their choices, preferences, hobbies, the kind of books they read. And in that journey, if you figure there is something they may enjoy, then you show them a meme. It’s a great way of saying that you have similar stories and challenges, and hey, here’s something interesting you might like too. But to use the meme as a way to bond with someone also perhaps shows you have low social skills.


They impact and change the way we think
When a meme strikes a chord, it has the potential to impact your thinking process. Just like random WhatsApp videos—especially the motivational kinds—they last in the biochemistry of your mind for a few moments. But we have ‘monkey minds’ which are constantly chattering, and the biochemistry changes fast.

So, unless you have sustained behavioural modification, the old behaviour will come back and the new one will be washed away. It’s also why motivational videos don’t work until you go and deploy what they’re recommending you to do. Similarly, memes are momentary. If there is a learning but you don’t deploy it, there is no use. Even if it’s a taunt. The mind has amnesia for a purpose.

Rahul Gandhi, for example, is an interesting case-study as a meme. If you consistently give out an image that you want to project—irrespective of what is circulated about you—you can overpower the opposition’s resonant message with your own.

Even before French President Justin Trudeau won his election, there were a lot of videos circulating on the internet saying that he just wasn’t ready. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t win the election. He chose not to do a negative campaign. He chose to go with ‘sunny days are back’. He used a different mindset and portrayed that irrespective of what people wrote about him, he would still talk about the impact he wanted to create.

They help us connect with our deeper selves
There are two parts in our brain. The first one is our limbic brain, which is driven by passion; our emotions come from there. Why we do what we do in life comes from our limbic brain. Cavemen originally had only sign language. Over the years, our prefrontal cortex developed, and we developed language. Even today, if I ask you why you do what you do or what is the reason you wake up each morning, you’ll have to think for some time before you answer. It will resonate in your limbic brain, you will know the answer in every cell of your body, but you won’t be able to verbalise it in a minute. Your prefrontal cortex will dive into the limbic brain, pull the information out, and then use the language faculty of your prefrontal cortex to express it.

Memes go around that mechanism, as they’re directly communicating with your inner feelings, without the need for verbalising. In a way, they make for a way of connecting to our deeper selves. With human evolution, language has evolved to eradicate miscommunication, but it’s not 100% there.

We expect people to increasingly read between the lines as opposed to clearly expressing that “This is what I feel/want”. In that case, people will jump to judgements faster, trust will drop over time, and it will be quite isolating if that happens. But instead, if you circulate memes and reach out to people, trust and social bonding will increase.