NYT op-ed: Martin Lindström misunderstands love, brain and iPhone

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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 Data of neither this, nor the brain imaging studies he refers to are unpublished.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.

Related posts:

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  2. How Advertising Creates Memories That Never Happened
  3. Do video games cause violence? Doesn’t matter
  4. Black Women are Less Attractive (If Your Idea of Black Women Comes from TV)
  5. Missing the Point

8 Responses to NYT op-ed: Martin Lindström misunderstands love, brain and iPhone

  1. TheCoconutChef says:

    “How and why could this have slipped true the system?”

    Partial object: Insightful analysis, no proofreading.

    • larrykoubiak says:

      I found myself lost in what could have been an interesting analysis, due to the many grammatical errors and weird choices of punctuation and emphasis. Which is a shame because from what i could grasp there was a valid point there.
      It seems to me that you made a conscious effort to use intricate structures and fancy words to (i’m guessing) sound smarter than the guy you’re deconstructing, since you are trying to prove he knows less about this subject than you do, after having done some research on the net i’m guessing (or from professional background, i’m not questioning your actual knowledge – although i kinda did by mere emphasis of the first assumption).
      My point is that i get the angle of attack, and after reading the NYT article your effect is successful, but you might want to stick to a more conventional style to avoid hampering your point.

      TL;DR : i was just using grammar and style as an excuse to make myself appear superior to you, which you were yourself doing towards the NYT columnist, in order to reveal the relative inefficiency of the method (and make myself sound smart). The article was still interesting, keep ‘em coming.

    • Comus says:

      Thank you and sorry for the typos, I did not have time to proofread, yet wanted to put this out to see what sort of a discussion it would spur. And, again, my go-to excuse: English is my fourth language, but I’m doing my best.

      I’m also pretty sure there aren’t any “fancy words” beyond the scope of an average high school kid in there, and I tried to keep it as simple as possible. It was also written in somewhat of an annoyed state, as the unholy alliance of media and charlatans within the neuroimaging industry just keeps increasing. It is a pet peeve of mine, and, as often is the case, this is reflected also on the text. Which of course is one of its functions , to create debate and discussion.

      So, I recommend that we move beyond the surface level of the sorry typos and discuss the issue. I’ve read it twice now and can’t see the typos blurring the point too much.

  2. TheCoconutChef says:


    So first thing: cudos to you for demystifying the science behind the article, but the problem with solely focusing on that aspect is that the science in the article is only a prop. That is, nobody really know what the fuck he’s talking about and, as a result, nobody really know what you’re talking about either, which doesn’t matter because the goal isn’t the science.

    Lindstrom talks the coded language of its reader. They see themselves as sophisticated and intelligent. They won’t just take anything as an argument, so the author has to dress what he wants to say with the language of science to give their reader the kind of intellectual certainty they need (“It’s true because MRI”). Which is also why it doesn’t matter wether or not the results of his study are published. He’s writing in the New-York Times. What matters is that we know there was a “team of scientist”.

    But this has for consequence than we can ignore most of the letters that have been typed in that article in favor of everything else, which is probably the built of a new consumer narrative.


    There’s been something else happening “to” apple in the recent days aside from the upcoming release of the Iphone 5 (which has been “happening” for a while): Amazon announced the kindle fire for 199$, something to which RIM and Best Buy immediatly reacted by annoucing 200$ price drops on their respective tablet (i’ll grant you that this is not strictly speaking iphone related). Now, I don’t know what Apple thinks their potential consumers believe about their product, but I’m not sure it’s worth 300$.

    But the more important effect of those announcements is not the financial loss to Apple but that, so far, that company possessed the monopoly on the magic looking / human connecting / touchy feely tablet market. But lower price point is going to destroy that monopoly by commodizing those object and destroying the narrative apple fan have built for themselves. What we’re gonna be left with is a bunch of people who bought magic screens for 600$-700$+ with shitty contractual obligations to get their 3G and won’t possibly be able to rationalize that purchase to anyone, especially not as luxury status item since everyone will be having them. The only hope is to start to hate on the technology.

    So here comes Lindstrom to the rescue.


    I suppose that it could be said that a marketer is a person who’s job is to create narratives which relieve the guilt people feel about their own consumerism. Sometimes, it may be about closing a chapter of our consumer’s live in order to open another. But in that sense, consumerism can never be the problem, it must always be the stories surrounding it, we’re only threading one kind for another.

    Once we’ve stripped the sciency stuff from the article, what we’re left with is this: what people really seek is to experience love (an authentic feeling), but love can’t be found in high end techno-luxury, instead: “Shut off your iPhone, order some good Champagne and find love and compassion the old-fashioned way. ”

    With Champagne.

    Old luxury is new luxury?

    *Didn’t proofread

    • Comus says:

      Fair point. It is the first part of your reply that I’d like to narrow down on. My point exactly, and the reason for the angst, is that we have dissociated the signifier “science” from it’s context. The ambivalent term Science as such has come to determines the actual scientific method and progress, not the other way around. People naturally assume that the word science contains the proper methods, the double-blind trials, a peer-reviewed article etc. Which is fine. It’s a useful heuristic for an individual to have.

      Now, when everybody and their cat can call themselves scientists, a problem emerges. Then it is up to the gatekeepers, ie. the news media, to do the research and see whether this or that discovery holds water. The more prestigious the paper the more emphasis it has.

      That is why it is so inherently frustrating to see these types of articles and the waving of some fancy methods, without a proper understanding. When this sort of tripe is already published under the rubrik of science, it should also be falsified by science; the scientists should explain and underline what is wrong here, instead of just shouting obscenities from the side. It is the only way to retain the usefulness of science. It has to go on meta-level and show how the very scientific method works on itself.

      The narrative on the part of the consumer is of a minor role in this. This is part of a larger struggle of battling misconceptions and misuse of pseudoscientific hogwash. If the scientific community does not take notice there’ll be more of this.

      I know the main point is “you love your iPhone”, (even if it a bit bulky) but the context within which it is presented is the one that pressurizes blood.

  3. Fifi says:

    For those interested, Wired and Neurocritic also did good critiques of the article and the sciency bullshit it promotes…



    Seems to me that this article was really written to promote the new iphones (and the author’s neuromarketing career/book) more than anything else. It’s a “let’s pretend we’re being critical and scientific” while it’s actually continually promoting Apple the whole way through the article.

  4. Guy Fox says:

    Comus, thanks for struggling with this wretchedly illogical language. Yes, I had to read a few sentences a few times, but anyone willing to make the effort will understand it.

    It’s surprising to hear that, in addition to being appallingly carcinogenic, cigarettes are also lovable. And is it also the case that crack whores love their crack so much that the love overflows, and they have to find others to mop up the excess? A guy who gambles his family’s house and savings away acts out of love?
    This is reminiscent of the recent replacement of ‘problem’ by ‘issue’. It’s the triumph of sentiment over thought.