No, you're not in love with your iPhone

The New York Times has an op-ed out today, which claims that fMRI studies show that, when people are exposed to a pretty, shiny, ringing iPhone, the experience lights up the part of their brains that signifies a deep, compassionate love for something. iPhones trigger the same brain activity that your parents and loved ones trigger, writes branding strategist Martin Lindstrom.

Clearly, this was going to turn out to wildly misleading. You love your iPhone like you love your mother is just not the kind of statement that passes a cursory bullshit inspection. And lots of people have handily debunked it, including a couple of actual nueroimaging specialists, Russ Poldrack and Tal Yarkoni.

So, how wrong was the NYT op-ed? Pretty damn wrong. Turns out, the part of the brain Martin Lindstrom identifies with lovey-dovey emotions is a lot more complicated than that. Here's Russ Poldrack:

Insular cortex may well be associated with feelings of love and compassion, but this hardly proves that we are in love with our iPhones. In Tal Yarkoni's recent paper in Nature Methods, we found that the anterior insula was one of the most highly activated part of the brain, showing activation in nearly 1/3 of all imaging studies! Further, the well-known studies of love by Helen Fisher and colleagues don't even show activation in the insula related to love, but instead in classic reward system areas.

And Tal Yarkoni adds a lot more to this:

... the insula (or at least the anterior part of the insula) plays a very broad role in goal-directed cognition. It really is activated when you’re doing almost anything that involves, say, following instructions an experimenter gave you, or attending to external stimuli, or mulling over something salient in the environment.

So, by definition, there can’t be all that much specificity to what the insula is doing, since it pops up so often. To put it differently, as Russ and others have repeatedly pointed out, the fact that a given region activates when people are in a particular psychological state (e.g., love) doesn’t give you license to conclude that that state is present just because you see activity in the region in question. If language, working memory, physical pain, anger, visual perception, motor sequencing, and memory retrieval all activate the insula, then knowing that the insula is active is of very little diagnostic value.

I'd recommend reading Yarkoni's full post, because it also gets into some really fascinating nuance behind the neuroscience of addiction. Shorter version: We don't have a clear biomarker that signals addiction, or addictive behavior. You couldn't even diagnose an obviously addicted individual using neuroimaging. So you should beware of anybody who tells you that an fMRI study demonstrates that people are addicted to anything.


  1. On the other hand I’m pretty sure the last 50 years of sci-fi has established that it’s possible to fall in love with an Android.

  2. Thanks for covering this. “Neuromarketing” is just a marketing term for “marketing.”  fMRI is heralding a new wave of modern phrenology where social concepts get reified as science. The reason there’s no marker for “addiction” is because it is a term based on some pretty shaky assertions. “The only reason to make the distinction [between habit and addiction] is to persecute somebody.” –Thomas Szasz

    1. Well, the basic way we formally diagnose addition is whether or not a behavior is interfering negatively in your life. And I think there’s some reasonableness to making a distinction between, say, drinking alcohol, and drinking alcohol to the point that you can’t hold down a job. I think there are good reasons for making that distinction, beyond persecution. There’s a lot of baggage associated with the word “addiction”, but that doesn’t mean that “addiction” as a concept doesn’t exist or shouldn’t be discussed. 

      1. A concept like “interfering negatively with your life” is a value judgment and a social construct, a medicalization of behavior which some people find annoying or offensive.

        Ordell: Goddamn girl, you gettin’ high already? It’s just 2 o’clock!

        Melanie: [chuckling] It’s that late?

        Ordell: You know you smoke too much of that shit, that shit gonna rob you of your ambition.

        Melanie: Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV…

        1. I dunno. I need to think about that one. Because I get what you’re saying. But, at the same time, I’ve known people who had far more objectively negative results of drug and alcohol abuse (becoming violent when drunk, for instance, or getting into situations where they personally are not happy with what the pursuit of drugs and alcohol have done to their lives). That stuff seems like more than “I find this obnoxious so you need to stop it”. But I do see what you’re saying. 

  3. No, not in love, attached to their iPhones.  People have come to identify with their iPhone, because they believe by having it, holding it, stroking it, babying it, or demonstrably using it in the presence of other people who want it, or think they want it, they’ll be what that thing represents, which is what Steve told you or wants you to think it was:  perfect, cool, magical, futuristic, brilliant, etc.  The reality is is that’s it’s a hunk of glass and steel, that intermittently functions depending on the network or location you’re at, is visibly slower and more expensive than the paper counterparts it’s meant to replace, is fragile and requires a lot of care and attention, has bugs or ‘features’ that lock it or make it difficult to change the software, is expensive, and is more of a toy than a tool.  (Speaking as someone who owns an iPhone.)  See also:  Buddhism and attachment.  

  4. Hmmm… not to mention that you may be instinctively thinking of who might be on the other line. In general I actually kind of hate my iPhone for a lot of reasons, but I’m ok with it and don’t want to bother with anything else. On the other hand,  I can’t help looking forward to hearing from certain people, and when my phone rings I’m always a little hopeful it’s them (and really disappointed if it’s something less fun like, say, some one from work calling to complain that I forgot to send my status report in). IOW, some people might be thinking “yay some one to talk to!” 

  5. Well, hell, I coulda told you everything he wrote was bullsh*t as soon as I read, “branding consultant”.

  6. Moms aren’t covered by AppleCare. It’s a lot more difficult to deal with a mom that’s broken than an iPhone. Plus you can’t upgrade to the latest mom model every year.

  7. to paraphrase a wise man: it’s ok to “love” your iphone, just don’t “LOOOVE” your iphone.

  8. I don’t like my iPhone any more than I liked the samsung flip phone it replaced. In fact, I wanted a decent flip phone, but nobody makes one anymore. I settled on the iPhone, becuase my friends with android have bricked their phones in front of my eyes, and nobody makes a good candy-bar phone anymore. 10 digits and a red and green call buttons. That’s all I give a crap about in a phone. If you had that phone, I’d trade you my iPhone for it. 

    1. All I know is, I never felt like throwing my mother against a wall till her insides came out.

      Just rub your functional family in everyone else’s face.

  9. The best fMRI study I’ve seen was covered here:
    It shows areas of the brain activated in a dead salmon when shown pictures of humans in different situations.

    fMRI studies generally need to clean up their act.  The flaws are not limited to those pointed out by the study above. There are too many publications in the high-profile science press that would fall short of being considered a good high-school science fair project if it weren’t for the big expensive shiny machine that goes “ding”.  I’ve basically had it with the fMRI crap-flood, so I’m tuning it out until the quality goes up significantly.

  10. Written by a branding strategist indeed. Christ.

    Apple- “We must change the dialogue about people being addicted to our product! It makes it seem like a drug and that is bad for business.”
    Branding Strategist- “They’re not addicted. They’re, uhhhhhh, they’re in love with it!”
    Apple- Uhhh, yeah, go with that..”

  11. No, you’re not in love with your iPhone

    And you are not making love to your iPhone either.  That’s just fucking.  

    Dirty, dirty fucking.

  12. No of course people don’t love their iThing like they love their mother, duh!

    The love of/for/with/about an iPhone is all consuming, and there is no greater love.

  13. Insert comment about generic hipster douchebag who sits in Starbucks all day playing with his Macbook, Ipad, Ipod and Iphone all at the same time.  They don’t have a job apparently but can somehow afford any and every electronic product ever made that’s prefixed with an “I”. ಠ_ಠ

  14. On the other hand, an awful lot of iphone users will be more upset if you diss steve jobs than if you diss their mother.

  15. So the title of this post was No, Your Not in Love with Your Iphone.  Then you go to say that the images taken of the brain may show similar patterns at when we are experiencing love, but according to another researcher/expert that the brain is much more complex than that and we can’t say what those images show, indicate people are in love with their Iphone.  Well, let me say this.  I call Bullshit!  And here is why, if you want to find out if people are really in love with their Iphones, just ask them what they would do if they lost it.  I was in remote tech support for years with a company that gave tech support for smart phones and I can tell you from personal experience that not only do people love their Iphones, they love them in ways that I would say is similar to how someone loves their pet.  
    I have had to talk people down from hysterics over the death of their Iphone. Now admittedly its not truely loss of the phone itself people experience distress over. It was the data, the convenience, the communication, the connection to friends and family as well as pictures and movies, all of those things are threatened by the loss of their Iphone.  So I say if you really want to see if people are in love with their Iphones, just see how they react to the thought of loosing it.

  16. Honestly, sometimes I just hold my Iphone (3gs) in my hand for no reason. I just like how it feels. I go so far as to undress it, slowly taking it out of it’s case. I often wonder when I feel those receptors going off what the future holds. It works, it helps me be productive, it really doesn’t crash or make me angry like my Palm phone does. I think this article is spot-on.

    1. Probably has something to do with the fact that apple markets its products as somehow magical and more amazing than anything else could possibly be, when in reality it is just good design and clever marketing.
      Snark is a reasonable reaction to over-the-top claims.

      1. It’s not as though that behaviour’s exclusive to Apple, though. Have you seen a car advert recently, any car advert? Wide, clear roads with no other traffic, unrealistic speeds, selling a magical, Don Draper-esque idea of freedom?

        It’s not as though it’s even exclusive within the computer industry. Doesn’t your favourite computer firm use marketing at all?

  17. I don’t think it’s bullshit just because it seems so ridiculous. I have left my home most of my adult life without my mother coming with me, but if I get to work and realize I left my phone at home there is a moment of panic. I have no children or pets so relativly speaking my phone is the closest I have to that on a daily basis. I don’t think it’s ridiculous to assume that the brain reacts a specific way to something we depend on, like mothers and phones. I mean this in a very general sense of course. Losing my iPhone would be nothing like losing a loved one, but it is fair to say that on an average day you may react more strongly to your phone than a loved one.

    1. The argument was not about if you’re in love with your phone or not. The argument was that some imaging researchers saw activation in a part of your brain that lights up when you’re in love. They then said, “Ahh, since there is activation here when they see their phone, they must love their phone.” Then the actual science guys came in and said “That’s bunk, that’s not what that activation means, that brain region lights up all the damn time for tons of reasons”.

      Essentially they never really addressed the “Do you love your phone” question with any evidence.

  18. People like to be associated with certain things. A band, a film director – a company wants that to be its product. Research companies and ad agencies make money catering to that company’s desires. Sometimes it works.

    schmaltastic: Many thanks for the salmon study. Comedy genius.

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