(Il)logical Lindstrom and the iPhone Infatuation
Ahh the Apple iPhone: sleek, sexy, and successful–monopolizing the mobile phone industry since its 2007 release. What is it about the iPhone in particular that sets it apart from its competitors, allowing it garner over 60 million followers worldwide? According to “neuromarketer” and consumer advocate Martin Lindstrom, iPhone users should not be considered addicts but rather amorous devotees who literally “love” their device. Now, I understand the dependency characteristic of an avid cell-phone user, whether Apple or otherwise. But as a neuro-nerd, I am obligated to ask: “Where’s the science behind this?”
In his New York Times Op-Ed article, Lindstrom (shadily) refers to several studies that he and his team conducted in order to assert that the world has succumbed to the iPhone empire. Disregarding the fact that my search for any related peer-reviewed Lindstrom articles was futile, the neuromarketer insists that his studies have shown that “love” is the only appropriate word to describe the emotions consumers have regarding their iPhone. Lindstrom refers to a recent fMRI experiment of his meant to compare the addictiveness of the iPhone to that of street drugs and alcohol. The study comprised of a whopping 16 subjects, none of whom were in a designated control group. The fMRI images from the study seemed to have Lindstrom convinced that his subjects were in “love” with their phones, due to the regions of the brain that lit up when they were presented with iPhone-related audio and visual stimuli.
Broadly defined, a biomarker is some indicator that can be used to identify a particular physiological state. fMRI can be used as a biomarker for say, Alzheimer’s Disease, but its relevance to addiction has yet to be scientifically solidified. For this reason, it seems silly for Lindstrom to be able to conclude that his subjects were infatuated with and completely dependent on their phones by just observing activated areas of their brains. Because addiction has very significant psychological AND physiological manifestations, it is not enough to diagnose someone as an addict based simply off of their fMRI scans. Just for the fun of it, let’s take a look at what ROI (region of interest) Landstrom and his team examined.
The insular cortex is a broadly activated region of the brain, responding to diverse stimuli. In fact, some imaging studies have actually found this area to be activated in nearly 33% of studies.
Functional Neuroanatomist Bud Craig wrote:
“The insula is a hidden lobe of the brain that received little attetnion so far. Yet it is distinctly enlarged in humans, and rapidly accumulating functional imaging evidence indicates that it is uniquely involved in virtually every human emotion and behaviour. Similarly, clinical evidence indicates that it is crucially involved in a variety of syndromes, including addiction, anxiety, depression, anosognosia, schizophrenia and frontotemporal dementia. Strikingly, however, many investigators that have reported activation of the insular cortex could not describe its role, because so little had been written about its overall functions. Converging evidence on insular function today comes from diverse fields of neuroscience, including cognitive, emotional, social, visceral, and sensory studies, which often have little other overlap. Thus an intense discussion about the role of insular cortex is urgently needed. “
Though fMRI is an invaluable asset to the scientific world, they only way it can be useful is if the data it delivers are properly understood. Since there are certain regions of the brain that are very prone to stimulus response (i.e. the insula), neuroscientists must take care to differentiate between those regions that are activated in response to the task at hand and those areas that are, more often than not, intrinsically activated. Lindstrom falls short in his argument by assuming that insular activity is the be-all, end-all of addict physiology. Lindstrom claims that the insula is known to be associated with emotions of love and affection and that, since this region was lighting up the fMRIs of his subjects, they must all love their phones in the same way that they love their family.
Sure, perhaps iPhone users do love their phones. And sure, I’d probably be a little depressed if my phone self-combusted. But I think Martin Lindstrom may have taken his neuromarketing conspiracy ideas a bit over the top. Regardless, had he provided some solid scientific proof to back up his statement (or even a few fMRI images), he may have had a better chance at keeping the critics at bay.
P.S. – If you want a laugh and don’t mind being a slightly (extremely) grossed out, read this self-proclaimed iPhone addict’s story: I Would Do Anything For Love/My iPhone
You Love Your iPhone-New York Times