The Decision Tree

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Do You Really Love Your iPhone, That Way?

Highly misleading neuroscience journalism in the New York Times

Artist's rendering of cupid, with iPhone
Artist's rendering of cupid, with iPhone
Collage by BYH

The New York Times should begin apologizing for its credulous neuroscience piece; it was so bad it borders on fraud. The op-ed was “You Love Your iPhone. Literally” was written by Martin Lindstrom, an author and branding consultant (and, it seems, Time Magazine 100 Influential People Honoree).

Lindstrom’s data shows that when someone sees pictures of ringing iPhones, their insula lights up. Because the insula is associated with love, he concludes that people truly love their iPhones in a deep and abiding way we normally associate with lovers, spouses, and, for a few of us, Alyson Hannigan.

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Lindstrom's conclusions are basically the opposite of the truth. The primary function attributed to the insula is disgust, not love. Neuroimaging studies show that the insula is activated by disgusting smells and disgusting tastes (such as butyric acid, which makes vomit smell like it does). Your insula is activated when you see someone do something, like cheating, that you find morally opprobrious. It’s activated by seeing photos that people generally consider revolting, like freshly mutilated limbs. If seeing your iPhone reminds you of severed limbs, then your best career choice may be an anti-consumerist performance artist.

Insula is activated by pain. People with irritable bowel syndrome show enhanced activity in insula, especially when they are feeling pain associated with their disease (or imagining it). It’s also activated by gastric distension or full bladders, symptoms of needing to go to the bathroom. My advice: If a ringing iPhone makes you feel the urge to run to the bathroom, consider switching over to a Droid.

It’s weird that the New York Times didn’t fact check this op-ed. It’s not a secret. All this stuff is on the wikipedia page for the insula. You don't even have to go to Pubmed! Perhaps the editors were blown away by Lindstrom's cool book titles like “Buyology” and “Clicks, Bricks, and Brands,” and didn’t bother to check with anyone who has heard of the word insula before.

In fairness, the insula is also sometimes associated with positive emotions (although much less often than it is linked to negative ones). And that’s the real problem with his claims. Like most of the brain, the insula is activated by many different things. Russ Poldrack, a professor who thinks deeply about neuroimaging, points out that insula is activated in as many as one-third of neuroimaging studies. (He also points out that some of the most well-regarded studies on love report no activation in the insula!)

Our brain regions are switch hitters; that’s how we are wired. And that fact means you can never infer that because a brain region is activated by emotion X, then activation there always means that emotion is being felt. Going from activation to emotion is the wrong direction; it’s called reverse inference. 

Practicing neuroscientists have known for years that reverse inference is a fallacy. Scholarly journals no longer accept manuscripts for publication that make this fallacy, because they are valueless. There is no reason for the popular press to be more credulous. It’s time for the New York Times to adopt the same policy. 

Neuroscientists should give them a kick in the butt. The Society for Neuroscience should publish guidelines for ethical practice of science journalism. These guidelines would apply to newspapers and to their op-ed columnists. Here’s a good start: “Align perception with reality. Your talents might very well lie in brilliantly creating convincing perceptions, but how do they stack up against the reality? If there’s a mismatch, either one must be adjusted for them to be in sync.” That’s from the Ethics Section of Lindstrom’s own website.

(Thanks to Molly Crockett for bringing this article to my attention).

Ben Hayden, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester.

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