ME/CFS is more than a meme

Internet memes are a subset of the general meme concept
Internet memes are a subset of the general meme concept

According to Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, a meme is “an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”  On 18th June 2014, a comment appeared on the website of the British Medical Journal entitled “Is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome a meme?”  Authored by Drs Anthony Collings and David Newton from Essex, it asked how well ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ fits the model of a meme-mediated syndrome – a “dysfunctional culturally-transmitted idea-infection”.  The authors conclude that “characteristics of transmission and retention of CFS fit well the characteristics of meme transmission and retention described in the literature”. And they go on to say that “Present mainstream treatments for CFS make sense when viewed as a process of dememeing.”

ME Research UK has published a ‘rapid response’ to this comment on the BMJ website, and it is given in full below.

ME/CFS is much more than a meme

There’s a problem with the “meme theory of CFS” proposed by Collings & Newton in their recent response. Memes are ideas or groups of ideas; they have no independent existence outside of human minds. The things of the world, however, are not memes, and it is dangerous to assume otherwise.

Leprosy, for example, could not be called a meme – it is an infectious illness with established sequelae, and it would exist as a fact of the world whether anyone ever ‘conceived’ of it or not. Similarly with ME/CFS. People meeting the definitions of ME/CFS and having the requisite concatenation of symptoms – delayed post-exertion problems, musculoskeletal pain, and a range of neurological & cognitive difficulties – certainly exist (there are around 190,000 of them in the UK [1]); their physiological illness is plain for anyone with eyes to see; and research frequently uncovers objectively existing biological abnormalities. Examples from ME Research UK-funded studies over the past 14 years [2] include dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system; impaired cardiac function, including reduced cardiac mass and blood volume; increased levels of oxidative stress, and increased apoptosis of white blood cells; the presence of cardiovascular risk factors with arterial stiffness; biochemical anomalies in children with ME/CFS mirroring those found in adults; and evidence of an increased sensitivity to pain.

Of course, it could be argued that the ‘concept’ of any particular illness – such as leprosy, ME/CFS or leukaemia – has meme potential, but the point is trivial and it tells us nothing about the real world of illness. No, ME/CFS is much more than a meme; it is very real, it should be taken as seriously as any other medical condition, and patients should be treated with respect.

Competing interests: None declared

Dr Neil C. Abbot, Research & Operations Director

ME Research UK, The Gateway, North Methven St, Perth PH1 5PP


1. Prevalence of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) in three regions of England: a repeated cross-sectional study in primary care. Nacul LC, Lacerda EM, Pheby D, et al. BMC Med 2011 Jul 28; 9: 91.

2. £1 million of biomedical research: an overview. Breakthrough 2014; Issue 19 (Suppl). ME Research UK.

Picture credit: Wikipedia: Internet Memes

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