Internet Morphine: The Fascinating Connection Between Memes and Opiods

When it comes to the internet, one cannot ignore the significant impact of internet memes. Memes have become an integral part of online culture, captivating the attention of millions across the globe. But what makes them so pleasureable? In this article, we will explore the perplexing nature of memes and how they act as the morphine of the internet.

Understanding the Mu-Opioid Receptors

Have you ever wondered why certain experiences or substances can make us feel so good? The answer lies within our brains and a fascinating group of receptors known as mu-opioid receptors. These receptors play a crucial role in our brain’s response to pleasure and have been likened to the effects of morphine. Let’s explore the function of mu-opioid receptors in the brain and how they respond to pleasure.

The Function of Mu-Opioid Receptors in the Brain

Mu-opioid receptors are primarily located in the brain, particularly in areas associated with reward, pain, visual, and emotional processing. These receptors act as gatekeepers, regulating the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins, which play a key role in our experience of pleasure.

When activated, mu-opioid receptors inhibit the release of certain neurotransmitters that are involved in transmitting pain signals and promote the release of dopamine, creating a pleasurable sensation. This activation can occur naturally through activities like eating, exercising, or engaging in social interactions. It can also be triggered by the use of certain drugs, such as opioids, which directly bind to these receptors and amplify their effects.

Locations of the mu opioid receptor (MOR) in the brain. The red areas are locations where MOR is present and active. Labeled locations are only approximate. Tao Che, CC BY-ND

How Mu-Opioid Receptors Respond to Pleasure

When we experience something pleasurable, whether it’s enjoying a delicious meal or engaging in a favorite hobby, mu-opioid receptors become activated. This activation leads to an increased release of dopamine, resulting in a sense of reward and reinforcement. It’s like our brain’s way of saying, “That feels good, let’s do it again!”

Interestingly, mu-opioid receptors not only respond to external sources of pleasure but also play a role in regulating our internal responses to pain and stress. When we encounter a stressful situation or experience pain, these receptors can be activated to help alleviate discomfort and promote feelings of well-being.

It’s important to note that while mu-opioid receptors are a natural part of our brain’s reward system, excessive activation or prolonged exposure to opioids can lead to dependency and addiction. This is because these drugs hijack the normal functioning of mu-opioid receptors, resulting in an overwhelming flood of dopamine and an altered perception of pleasure.

Mu-opioid receptors are fascinating components of our brain’s reward system. They play a vital role in our experience of pleasure and are involved in both natural and drug-induced sensations of reward. By understanding how these receptors function, we can gain insights into the complex interplay between our brain, pleasure, and addiction.

The Connection Between Memes and Mu-Opioid Receptors

Internet memes, which have become an integral part of internet culture, have a unique ability to elicit emotional responses and capture our attention. Research on aesthetic experiences of art suggests that this effect may be attributed to the activation of mu-opioid receptors in the association cortex of the brain.

Memes Stimulate the Mu-Opioid Receptors

Have you ever wondered why certain memes have the power to make us burst into laughter or feel a sudden surge of joy? It turns out that the answer might lie in our brain’s mu-opioid receptors. These receptors, which are responsible for mediating feelings of happiness, pleasure, and reward, can be activated by various stimuli, perhaps even humor.

When we encounter a funny meme, similar to when we encounter interesting artwork, endogenous opioids released by the brain could bind to the mu-opioid receptors in the association cortex. Activation triggers a cascade of reactions that result in feelings of happiness and satisfaction. Essentially, memes could have the capacity to stimulate the same brain regions that are involved in the experience of pleasure.

Memes and the Brain’s Association Cortex

The association cortex, a region of the brain responsible for complex cognitive processes, can play a crucial role in the interpretation and appreciation of memes. Memes often rely on contextual knowledge, linguistic nuances, and cultural references to convey their message effectively. This would require the association cortex to integrate various pieces of information and make connections between them.

Interestingly, the association cortex is densely populated with mu-opioid receptors. When the brain makes a new association between new concepts, many of these receptors are activated to help in this process. As the brain learns an association between two cocepts through multiple exposures, less and less mu-opiod receptors are activated in the association contex. Therefore, the stimulus loses some of its pleasureable quality.

Intenret memes may have evolved to exploit this neural pathway, effectively hijacking our brain’s reward system. Memes follow MAYA (maximally advances yet acceptable) design principle. They blend innovative captions with convential resources like image macro templates. This allows for new associations to be made and activates the mu-opioid receptors in the association cortex.

However, just like drugs, the more we consume memes, the greater our tolerance for their novelty gets. So, a meme that might activate mu-opiods for a novice will not be able to stimulate the meme expert. Tolerance to memes could create more novelty-seeking and creative behavior, resulting in memes that can only be understood by a select group of experts.

example of MAYA designed memes
A meme that follows a MAYA principle. It uses the “Loss” format to make an innovative joke about human pattern recognition

Furthermore, the association cortex is also involved in the processing of emotions and social cognition. Memes, with their ability to evoke strong emotional reactions and convey relatable social messages, tap into these cognitive functions. This may explain why memes have such a widespread appeal and can quickly spread like wildfire across social media platforms.


The connection between memes and mu-opioid receptors sheds light on the powerful influence of internet culture on our brain’s reward system. By stimulating the mu-opioid receptors through humor and targeting the association cortex with their innovative design, memes have the ability to captivate our attention and elicit strong emotional responses.

By understanding the neural mechanisms behind this phenomenon, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the widespread popularity and addictive nature of memes in today’s digital age. As memes continue to evolve and shape our online culture, it is important to approach them with a critical mindset, recognizing their potential to both entertain and impact our mental well-being.

The next time you encounter a hilarious meme, remember that its impact goes beyond a simple laugh – it’s a fascinating interplay between our brain and the world of online humor.

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