On the OP-ed column of New York Times last Friday Martin Lindström effectively misunderstands basic concepts of brain functioning and causality. This is made all the more sadder by the fact Lindström is an author of Buyology – Tryth and Lies About Why We Buy and Brandwashed, in the former of which he claims to have gathered the evidence from his 3-year studies of over 2000 people. Data of neither this, nor the brain imaging studies he refers to are unpublished. This, when you think of it, is rather amusingly paradoxical. Or would be, if it weren’t for the fact that he is seen as somewhat of an authority due to these bestsellers.
The piece is called “You love your iPhone. Literally”. Which pretty much sums up his whole column, as well as functions as an objective truth statement about your subjective experience. I did not even know I owned one, let alone loved it. He begins by claiming that the words ”addiction” and “fix” should be scrapped due to their ambiguity, and replaced with a good solid word: love. Which, it appears is not ambiguous in the slightest, and carries no additional weight. This conceptual urgency he has proven with his recent, yet data wise curiously absent, MRI-study. (Which miraculously is not published, even though it would be ground-breaking in that in order to notice an absence of addiction, he would have had to single out a neural correlate to addiction – which of course has never before been done) One could easily see the benefits for a “branding consultant” to spin the negative concepts of addiction and fix, with their drug-world connotations, into positive ones of love and caring. There’s much more market in showing consumers “love” something than there is in showing they are addicted. Showing via brain scans. With no need for behavioral or qualitative experience.
He also bases his interest in a pseudo-freudian buzzword, effectively missing the whole point of the concept:
Friends who have accidentally left home without their iPhones tell me they feel stressed-out, cut off and somehow un-whole. That sounds a lot like separation anxiety to me”
No. No it doesn’t.
We are starting then to enter the core of his statement in which lies a study to see whether iPhones were addictive or not. There are several good posts about what is inherently wrong in his study and its interpretation, so I’ll only waddle through this quickly here.
..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.
Of course, synesthesia is nothing like this, but a conscious mixing of modalities. When you actually see (have a qualitative experience) shapes upon hearing a sound, it can be called synesthesia. When your brain activation is noticed to increase in both the auditory and the visual cortices, but no conscious experience of this is reported it is merely a causal logical fallacy type post hoc ergo propter hoc. So iPhones do not magically create synesthetic properties.
He continues by noting that there was a “flurry of activation” in the insular cortex. Insula, he notes, is associated with feelings of love and compassion, so this of course means you feel love and compassion for your iPhone. This all is cuddly and aww-inspiring, but also a selective misunderstanding of the insula. As a special issue on the functions of the insula in Brain Structure and Function ) demonstrates, insula is one of the most frequently found active areas (1/3 of all fMRI and PET studies), no matter the study subject. As the previously linked Mindhacks post points out, it is also active in feelings of disgust. Lindström decides to choose this as a demonstration of love (rather than addiction, which insular activation is also linked to, and love not consistently so), even though insula is more often activated by negative than positive emotions, a point one should at least consider. Maybe the ringing of an iPhone brings about feelings of stress, or disgust or whatever. The same logical fallacy as before repeats itself.
Lindström then finishes with a, in itself a rather nice note, on how one should focus on human interaction, and leave the digital media be. One can’t help to wonder whether he himself would have had more valid and reasonable results if he were to practice his preaching and left the alluring shining images of the brain and just plain asked the subjects about their feelings toward the iPhone.
So what? It is easy to dive into the individual shortcomings of this column and dismiss it as a singular case. This is all the more probable when your mind steers to wonder about why did he need to brand addiction as love, and the end up saying that love for an inanimate object is bad? Especially when there’s not that much solid data to support this, and fails to notice that this was on the NY Times. How and why could this have slipped true the system?
This appeared before the introduction of iPhone 5, and a quick ordinary read would pick up some points of the column:
a) Everybody is addicted to iPhones
b) Addiction to iPhone is in fact Love
c) Love for iPhone shows in the brain
d) Interpersonal relationships should not be forgotten
So is this a clever marketing ploy for the iPhone? “iPhones are people too?” Or an advertisement for Lindströms brand consulting services? All in all it deepens the mysticism hovering about brain images and underlines how easy it is to misuse and misunderstand science.
My insula is activated, but it is not love.