The Science of Willpower

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Yes, You Are Addicted to Your Smart Phone

How the NYT got the neuroscience of addiction wrong.

The most emailed article on the New York Times right now is "You Love Your iPhone. Literally," an OP-ED by Martin Lindstrom, a "branding" expert. The jist of the piece: Lindstrom claims people are in love with their smart phones, not addicted to them. His evidence? When people think of their phones, an area of the brain called the insula becomes more active. He says the insula activation indicates feelings of affection. And if you want to kiss and cuddle with your phone, you aren't addicted. I supposed that is supposed to make us feel better about checking our phones before we get out of bed in the morning (something Lindstrom confesses to).

The article is being pilloried by other science journalists and neuroscientists (for a sampling, see David Dobb's "fMRI Shows My Bullshit Detector Going Ape Shit Over iPhone Lust" at Wired.com and Neuromarketing means never having to say you're peer reviewed,but here's your NYT op-ed space" at the Neurocritic Blog.) Their main gripe is that the insula may be activated by things people claim to love, but it's involved in many emotions and cognitive processes. You certain can't make the nuanced claim Lindstrom argues based on the limited neuro-evidence he presents.

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But I haven't seen one criticism yet that seems like the most direct problem with the piece. Not only does insula activation not rule out the possibility of addiction; it is directly implicated in addiction. In fact, the New York Times even ran a piece on this very point a few years back. The 2007 article described case studies of people who suffered brain injuries in the insula. This led to a curious side effect: the total and complete loss of cravings for previous addictions. So a smoker who suffered damage to his insula would lose all desire for, and all addiction to, cigarettes. Other research confirms that the insula is profoundly important in sustaining addictions. It draws attention to the body's symptoms of withdrawal and seems to produce or amplify the emotional and physical agony of cravings.

So it would seem that insular activation when people think of their phones could indicate cravings as much as anything else -- the exact opposite of what the OP-ED argues.

Anyone familiar with research on either love, addiction, or the insula would find the OP-ED silly. This seems to be the case with the majority of opinion pieces that cite psychology or neuroscience research. I love that writers want to base their arguments on science, but it's a shame that the New York Times doesn't have a columnist who can comment on social science or neuroscience with the credibility that Paul Krugman can comment on economics. A girl can dream!

 

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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