This New York Times (September 30, 2011) op-ed by neuromarketer Martin Lindstrom kicked off a protest among neuroscientists:
Earlier this year, I carried out an fMRI experiment to find out whether iPhones were really, truly addictive, no less so than alcohol, cocaine, shopping or video games. In conjunction with the San Diego-based firm MindSign Neuromarketing, I enlisted eight men and eight women between the ages of 18 and 25. Our 16 subjects were exposed separately to audio and to video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone.
In each instance, the results showed activation in both the audio and visual cortices of the subjects’ brains. In other words, when they were exposed to the video, our subjects’ brains didn’t just see the vibrating iPhone, they “heard” it, too; and when they were exposed to the audio, they also “saw” it. This powerful cross-sensory phenomenon is known as synesthesia.
But most striking of all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion. The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member.
Well, if it’s called neuroscience, it must be true, right? Even if it shows you have complex erotic relationship with your kid’s gerbil.
Ah, there’s just one problem, and in “No, you don’t love your IPhone,” Bradley Voytek explains,
Tal Yarkoni really gives the best response to this,
There’s so much wrong with just these three short paragraphs (to say nothing of the rest of the article, which features plenty of other whoppers) that it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s try. Take first the central premise–-that an fMRI experiment could help determine whether iPhones are no less addictive than alcohol or cocaine. The tacit assumption here is that all the behavioral evidence you could muster–-say, from people’s reports about how they use their iPhones, or clinicians’ observations about how iPhones affect their users–-isn’t sufficient to make that determination; to “really, truly” know if something’s addictive, you need to look at what the brain is doing when people think about their iPhones. This idea is absurd inasmuch as addiction is defined on the basis of its behavioral consequences, not (right now, anyway) by the presence or absence of some biomarker. What makes someone an alcoholic is the fact that they’re dependent on alcohol, have trouble going without it, find that their alcohol use interferes with multiple aspects of their day-to-day life, and generally suffer functional impairment because of it–-not the fact that their brain lights up when they look at pictures of Johnny Walker red. If someone couldn’t stop drinking–-to the point where they lost their job, family, and friends–-but their brain failed to display a putative biomarker for addiction, it would be strange indeed to say “well, you show all the signs, but I guess you’re not really addicted to alcohol after all.”
A large group of neuroscientists has also sent a protest letter to the Times, saying,
The editorial “You love your iPhone, literally” by Martin Lindstrom purports to show, using brain imaging, that our attachment to digital devices, rather than reflecting an addiction, instead reflects the same kind of love that we feel for human loved ones. However, the evidence presented by Lindstrom does not show this. The region that he points to as being “associated with feelings of love and compassion” (the insular cortex) is a brain region that is active in as many as one third of all brain imaging studies (http://www.nature.com/nmeth/
journal/v8/n8/full/nmeth.1635. html). Moreover, in studies of decision making the insula is more often associated with negative rather than positive emotions. The kind of reasoning that Lindstrom uses is well known to be flawed, because there is rarely a one-to-one mapping between any brain region and a single mental state. This same point was made by some of us (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/ 11/14/opinion/lweb14brain.html ) regarding a similar Op-Ed piece in 2007 (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/ 11/11/opinion/11freedman.html) .
We also find it surprising that the Times would publish claims based on scientific data that have not been published or subjected to the standard peer review process, given that its pages often exhort policy makers to pay attention to peer-reviewed scientific evidence.
Lots of people aren’t as surprised as these folk are. “Peer-reviewed” is shorthand around there for “The establishment supports this.”
In any event, it looks like neuroscience is a real science too. One way you can tell is when neuroscientists get sick of the pop media’s neurobilge.
Note: Complex erotic relationship with your kid’s gerbil? Let’s say the thing started out as a science fair project. It’s kind of cute for a rodent, but you still wish it would hurry up and die, ‘ cause the kid has moved on to other things? … fMRI, insula … There, that proves it!
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose