Until recently, I was unaware that the feelings I have for my iPhone are the same emotions I feel for a loved one. At least that's what branding consultant Martin Lindstrom would have us believe in his September 30, 2011 New York Times op-ed piece.
Lindstrom conducted an "experiment" (his words) with 8 men and 8 women between the ages of 18 and 25. He exposed the subjects to audio and video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone and used functional MRI (fMRI) to map brain activity during these exposures. The results? Lindstrom claims that based on activation in the insular cortex, the brain responds to the iPhone the same way it reacts to the presence of a significant other or family member. In other words, we "love" our iPhone.
I believe it was irresponsible of the Times to publish this article, for many reasons. First, Lindstrom's claim is based on a single study with questionable methodology. He conducted a correlational study, not an "experiment." There was no random assignment of participants to conditions (in fact, there was no control group at all), and no manipulation of an independent variable. Second, 16 is a very small sample size. Additionally, the age range of the participants was not representative of the entire population in terms of generalizing. Furthermore, the brain is a complex system, and Lindstrom failed to consider that its regions are not associated with just one single emotion. Also, he failed to recognize that there might be other explanations for why the insular region showed activity. Moreover, most fMRI scans are produced by subtracting brain activity on a control task (absent from this study) from brain activity on an experimental task. Finally, some of Lindstrom's conclusions are based on inaccurate information (see below).
Neuroscientists quickly refuted Lindstrom's claim. Russell Poldrack, a professor of psychology and neurobiology at the University of Texas at Austin, blogged that some famous studies of love don't even associate it with activity in the insula. Poldrack also wrote the Times a letter noting that the insular cortex is active in roughly 1/3 of all brain imaging studies. In Psychology Today, Ben Hayden, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, points out that the insular cortex is actually most frequently associated with negative emotion, like disgust, rather than positive feelings.
The takeaway here? Even if an article publishes in a normally reputable source and has the appearance of being scientific, we should still be skeptical. We should be particularly careful in cases where brain images are involved, because according to our text, studies show that undergraduates are more susceptible to any claim that includes brain images, even if the claim is bogus.