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.
... 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.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.