On the Outright Silliness of Finding Love in a Brain Scan

It is not uncommon to hear people complain that their partner, child, friend, whoever is "addicted" to his or her cell phone. "He checks it all the time, during dinner, while we watch TV," they say. And they have a point. Sure, we are playing fast and loose with the term "addiction." We don't mean it in a clinical, DSM-certified sense. But there can be little doubt that many people keep connected with their phones at a near-constant clip.

But are they really addicted? Branding consultant Martin Lindstrom, writing in The New York Times, sets out to answer that question specifically with regard to iPhones, using "science." He comes up with an altogether different answer: We aren't addicted to our iPhones, not in the scientific sense. Instead, our relationship to our iPhones is one of love.

Lindstrom examines the fMRIs of 16 people while listening to audio or watching video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone. He finds:

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.

As we embrace new technology that does everything but kiss us on the mouth, we risk cutting ourselves off from human interaction. For many, the iPhone has become a best friend, partner, lifeline, companion and, yes, even a Valentine. The man or woman we love most may be seated across from us in a romantic Paris bistro, but his or her 8GB, 16GB or 32GB rival lies in wait inside our pockets and purses.

There are many things that strike me as not exactly tip-top science about this -- the assumption that somehow brain scans can conclusively show whether people are addicted to something, the tiny sample size, the lack of any peer review process or published evidence -- but worst of all of these offense is his leap from a response in the insular cortex to the conclusion that people therefore "love" their iPhones. As psychologist Tal Yarkoni explains in a blazing take-down of Lindstrom's essay, "There's a much simpler way to explain why seeing or hearing an iPhone might elicit insula activation. For most people, the onset of visual or auditory stimulation is a salient event that causes redirection of attention to the stimulated channel. 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."

Even if Lindstrom's basic premise that somehow insular activation indicated feelings of love (and the Yarkoni piece makes it clear that this it not valid in the least), his conclusion still doesn't hold up. How can you untangle love for our partners, friends, family (the exact people Lindstrom thinks we are replacing with technology) from our response to an incoming call? When my phone lights up, sure, I get excited. But it's because of the person on the other end of the line, not the gadget itself.