Over at Psychology Today, neuroscientist Benjamin Hayden has a nice critique of The New York Times “Most Emailed” op-ed “You Love Your iPhone. Literally” by author and branding consultant Martin Lindstrom. Hayden writes that the piece is so deeply flawed that it’s reason for The Society for Neuroscience to publish guidelines for the ethical practice of science journalism. His first recommendation would be (to quote the Ethics Section of Lindstrom’s own website):
“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.”
So what’s the problem? Lindstrom’s data shows that when a person sees images of ringing iPhones, their brain’s insula–which is associated with love–lights up. And so, he concludes that people truly and deeply love their iPhones in a way similar to the way we love our partners. But, according to Hayden:
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.
While the insula can be associated with positive emotions, it may also be activated by all sorts of stimuli. Activation to emotion is the wrong direction (called reverse inference). And practicing neuroscientists and scholarly journals no longer accept manuscripts that make this mistake. Apparently, neither should The New York Times.