If there’s a single meme that described the state of online discourse in 2017, it was Galaxy Brain. The meme is premised on increasingly smart takes next to pictures of increasingly aroused brains… until we get to the end, where we find a take that has gone totally around the bend, next to a picture of a glowing brain that seems to comprehend the mysteries of the stars themselves. A “Galaxy Brain” idea is one that the poster seems to feel is very clever, but it’s actually completely ridiculous. This kind of “dumb-smart” quality is what it means to be Galaxy Brain, and 2017—the year where “smart” people went down ratholes about Russian spy conspiracy theories and the “Deep State”—had it in spades.
The origin of the Galaxy Brain meme
Galaxy Brain began life on Reddit in a more sincere form: The biggest brain originally represented an option that the poster honestly felt was smarter or better than the others. This quickly shifted to jokes where the biggest brain was the funniest, weirdest, or most blatantly deficient thing the poster could think of: bad TV shows, bad video games, or pooping in the bathtub (seriously).
Once it reached Twitter, though, the joke became more subtle and sarcastic. Instead of filling out the entire graphical brain chart, people would just derisively refer to a take or opinion as “Galaxy Brain.” This indicated that, despite the author’s confidence in their own intelligence, they were actually extremely dumb.
As America’s politically fraught first year under President Donald Trump, 2017 was as Galaxy Brain as a time period could be. People Galaxy Brained about sexual assault, Russian election interference, the NFL national anthem protests, Nazi-punching, video games, and memes themselves. They did it on Twitter, on Reddit, on YouTube, and on the editorial pages of major newspapers. Our collective brain was so, so big this year—and by “big,” I mean ironically galactic.
Examples of Galaxy Brain takes
Let’s look at some of the many times the Galaxy Brain seemed like the perfect shorthand to describe a bit of Bad Discourse:
Remember when Chicago offered to divert Amazon employees’ local taxes directly back into Amazon’s pockets? Galaxy Brain.
Remember when Eric Trump was willfully ignorant about why people were mad that his President father called Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “Pocahontas?” Galaxy Brain.
Remember when white people were realllly mad at the NFL because Black football players were kneeling during the national anthem, but football’s terrible history of causing brain damage didn’t hurt viewership numbers at all? Yep, that’s Galaxy Brain.
Sexual assault, a hot topic about which every dumbass on the internet feels qualified to pontificate, is a deep and rich vein of Galaxy Brain takes. And the debate about universal healthcare? There’s were also Galaxy Brain takes for that, too.
Galaxy Brain is in some ways a symptom of the rise of the Take Industrial Complex, the media phenomenon where writers (and tweeters) race to come up with opinions that haven’t already been posted. When all of the good, sensible opinions and the counterintuitive, insightful takes are already gone, what’s left is Galaxy Brain. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been doing this for years, and posters in 2017 have retroactively acknowledged him as a sort of patron saint of the meme:
The same pattern could be seen all over Twitter debates. In 2017, the state of online discourse is neither good nor subtle, and people mainly post opinions that support their chosen political side. In this climate, it sometimes becomes necessary to convince yourself of some truly absurd garbage to support one’s chosen team. When a belief accords with one’s political views but doesn’t bear any relation to reality, you get Galaxy Brain. On the left, the most fanciful and elaborate Trump-Russia conspiracy theories form a deep rabbit hole of Galaxy Brain. On the right, hysteria about the news media and the “Deep State” conspiring to depose Donald Trump are Galaxy Brain as hell. The socialist “Dirtbag Left” on Twitter has also used “Galaxy Brain” to describe people who defend capitalism and the free market even as it seems to be crushing their livelihoods.
The bad-faith Galaxy Brain
Another prominent type of Galaxy Brain is the bad-faith take. This is an attempt to defend an indefensible political position by intellectualizing it, making an argument that even the poster doesn’t actually believe. This maneuver has become increasingly common as Republican voters grapple with the cognitive dissonance of supporting a party without supporting its policies. The gymnastics required to convince themselves and others that voting for Trump or Roy Moore has a logic other than party affiliation and white supremacy are totally Galaxy Brain.
See, e.g., Breitbart’s attempt to paint Net Neutrality as elitist rules that “favored Silicon Valley Internet provider monopolies over telecom providers.” Oh, those poor little telecom monopolies! This is Galaxy Brain to a T.
So is Donald Trump’s legal team’s recent declaration that he can’t possibly obstruct justice because, as the president, he is justice. Hoo boy. Galaxy Brain.
Every day Galaxy Brain takes
The beauty of the meme is that it’s not limited to the news and major political issues. It’s equally suited to address mundane, every day “deep thoughts” about what constitutes a sandwich:
Or what kind of movie viewing is the best:
Or what to watch on TV:
More than any other meme, Galaxy Brain tracks perfectly with how we talked and thought about issues in 2017. It’s a very specific, very elaborate, very petty insult that only makes sense to those who are Extremely Online. It’s an object lesson in the way online life has become gradually more insular and unsatisfying, and winning an argument has become more important than making any sense.
When words lose meaning and positions change like the weather, even those with good intentions can find their brains swelling and glowing. That was 2017. That’s what being did to us. That’s Galaxy Brain.