Love me, love my iPhone?

Ok, so this might be more Neuroscience than Psychology but it still demonstrates the disparity between seemingly scientific articles in the popular press, in the case the New York Times, and the actual science behind the reporting.

The article describes the results of fluctuating Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans of people viewing images of the iPhone. The meat of the piece is found in the following quote

“Earlier this year, I carried out an fMRI experiment to find out whether iPhones were really, truly addictive, no less so than alcohol, cocaine, shopping or video games. In conjunction with the San Diego-based firm MindSign Neuromarketing, I enlisted eight men and eight women between the ages of 18 and 25. Our 16 subjects were exposed separately to audio and to video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone.

In each instance, the results showed activation in both the audio and visual cortices of the subjects’ brains. In other words, when they were exposed to the video, our subjects’ brains didn’t just see the vibrating iPhone, they “heard” it, too; and when they were exposed to the audio, they also “saw” it. This powerful cross-sensory phenomenon is known as synesthesia.

But most striking of all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion. The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member.

In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Instead, they loved their iPhones. “

There are a few problems with the actual science of the article.

Firstly there is no agreed biomarker using fMRI  for addiction of any sort.

Secondly, the research the author quotes has not been published in any academic journal or peer reviewed.

Thirdly, the area of the brain referred to (insular cortex) is not “particularly with feelings of love and compassion”.

In fact, accrding to Tal Yarkoni, Ph.D. Post-doctoral fellow. Department of Psychology and
Neuroscience University of Colorado at Boulder, “I’d be pretty surprised, actually, if you could present any picture or sound to participants in an fMRI scanner and not elicit robust insula activity”.

Yarkoni writes and excellent forensic takedown of the article on his own blog

So, Popular Press 0 – Hard Science 1

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2 Responses to Love me, love my iPhone?

  1. Excellent work here and I found the research fascinating as well as their conclusions as well as the comments on the conclusions. But do be aware that sometimes people have axes to grind, so that when someone evaluates a piece of research, their own perspective must be taken into account, though that does not necessarily diminish anything they may have to be said, but it is simply something to bear in mind. I also notice that you have been able to post an image which is something that I and others have struggled to do so can I ask you to go to the discussion board and post a new thread , describing how you did it and then I can direct people to the post when they are stuck

    • Thanks for that!

      Funny you should mention that axe-to-grind thing, I just watched the panorma episoode you referred to in the course materials and thought the reporter definitely did. I posted on the discussion board about it and will do a full piece on my blog later this week breaking it down fully. I also need to recognize that I also have an axe to grind, clearly being pro-games! 🙂

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