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I’ve smoked cigarettes for half my life. I’m going to turn thirty next year, and I picked up the habit when I was fifteen. I’ve been saying for years that I would quit at thirty, if I lived that long. But I’m clearly not a famous rockstar, dying young, staying pretty. I’m planning to get real old (and real ugly). It’s time to change.

Now I have to dismantle a huge structure in my brain. A memeplex that infiltrates every other experience, from driving to drinking, from sadness to sex. The nicotine bug infests my life. I have to repel this cognitive invasion, and install permanent defenses.

Tobacco is like the Fae, the old fairies from the old stories. It’s always with me, always watching, carefully regulating my behavior to some unknown whimsy. It sculpts the pattern of my days. It repels some people, draws others in. It kills. We know it kills. I know it kills. Everyone mouths the words about not making deals with the Fae, how fairies are cruel and deadly creatures. But they just can’t stop.

Through sophisticated neural hackery, tobacco becomes more important than life. Not just controlling when we sleep or who we know, but deciding when we live and die. The bargain is that good. So many people have taken it. What about this one plant that’s worth dying for?

An ethnobotanist or an apothecary can tell you about the plant itself, its provenance, its powers. I want to work at another level. Pinch to zoom: let’s take it for granted that tobacco mimic some reward function in the brain. It does a Y um Thing .

What propagates the habit at the level of society? Most people weren’t held down and forced to breathe the smoke of the leaf. Why do they become smokers?

Tobacco, as a concept. is an ancient meme. It’s primitive. It evolved genetically, alongside its chemical superpowers. Genetic evolution is really good at chemistry, but not nearly as clever about information complexity.

Of course, we’ve embellished it with layers of memes, about farming and packaging and marketing tobacco, and about smoking it and sharing it and selling it. But the central meme is like a giant ancient virus frozen in ice. It’s a textbook example of human hacking.

Tobacco’s memetic core is a simple cue-action-reward loop ( see SCIOPS 02.19 ). The cue is the presence of the plant itself (although once the habit is established, the cue can in fact be the lack of the plant). The action is to smoke, chew, sniff, or even touch the plant itself. The reward is this Yum Thing in your brain. See plant, smoke plant, feel Yum: simple. If you have a tobacco habit, you’re probably itching to have a smoke just from reading the word. Go ahead. I’ll join you, in a moment.

The magic is in the second- and third-level hooks. Remember from SCIOPS 01.20 that the L1 hooks are primal instincts, like food, or the Yum Thing. L2 are social hooks, feelings of belonging and love. L3 are quest hooks: crises, emergencies and missions, which tap in to our temporal senses and neurochemical cycles.

At L3, tobacco is actually using the hook the way it’s supposed to be used. It’s plugging in to a very important interface: the agriculturist memeplex, which bends humans to the cycles of sun and rain, and holds them captive to a plot of soil. The very fact that you have to destroy tobacco-the-plant to operate tobacco-the-meme forces a crisis. If you don’t grow more tobacco this year, you will smoke it all and run out. And if you don’t plant your seeds, they will go stale, and someday you’ll have no tobacco DNA left anywhere. This is the same crisis we have with fruit or wheat or potato. It’s effective, but it can’t be the full explanation. Fruit is food: the metabolic pathways are there for that. We’re built to break down exactly those chemicals. Whatever your tastes, you have to eat something. You don’t have to breathe smoke.

The second level effect is the magic of tobacco, what propelled the plant across the world and into so many lives. The need for belonging spans all cultures. Tobacco, with its instant effect on neurochemistry, satisfices that need.

Say that we’re huddled together on a porch, outdoors so we can smoke but hemmed in by rain. You and I, two people from different backgrounds, with different mindsets, get the same Yum Thing from the smoke. Our minds are brought closer together. As the nicotine kicks in, your subtle biological signs all shift to show that you’re feeling what I’m feeling. My mirror neurons register that we’re developing rapport. Irrationally, I feel I trust you, and elevate my opinion of your behavior and appearance.

This cerebral system developed for the all-important task of transmitting memes. A 2008 paper by Joanna Bryson suggests that our unique memetic capacities come from two traits found separately elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Like birds, we can observe short song-and-dance numbers, remember them, and mimic them. Unlike birds, our heritage as primates gives us a combinatorial mind, required for the staggering computations that keep track of every member of the tribe and their relation to every other member. We simulate each other within our minds.

Tobacco hacks that system, slides right into our DMs. It’s the mutual personal friend that makes a stranger feel familiar. It is a vector that takes you from one state of mind to another – the essence of a of meme. But it’s oddly void of content.

You don’t have to talk about smoking to enjoy it.

You don’t have to praise the gods the whole time.

You can do it almost without thinking.

Which means it infiltrates every activity, misdirecting you along its ten-minute rat maze, returning you to where you began. It creates an enjoyable state of mind, 90% of the time, every time. How many things in your life have that kind of track record? IT DOES KILL YOU. I KNOW. D O N ‘ T S T A R T , K I D S ! ! 1 !

really bad meme claiming dip is made of plants and therefore is salad

Tobacco’s a drug. But memes are a lot like drugs: they take you predictably from one location in thoughtspace to another.

Is porn a drug? It tricks the brain into producing a Yum Thing despite being counter-adaptive in the evolutionary sense.

Is 24/7 news channel on TV a drug? How about Emotion Meal hamburger, fats and sugars and salt, drugs?

Drugs, hacks, superstimuli: our habits grow like black pearls around these precious irritants. They hijack us when we’re most vulnerable. When our wards are down, when our self-concept is drifting through liminal waters, the memes slip aboard and start building their nests.

To eradicate this memefestation, I must strike at the source of its power. I’ll have to find another source for belonging and thoughtful breathing time. Maybe I’ll become one of those yoga people, always stretching in public like it’s no big deal.

No – I’ll join an a cappella group! Replace smoking with singing. Practice my songs on the stairs outside my apartment every hour or two, or while driving, in secretive corners at social events, late at night when I can’t sleep. Not much weirder than huffing toxic plant char, right?

It’s a start. Thanks for reading.

– Max


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