Are We Actually In Love With Our iPhones?
October 3, 2011

Are We Actually In Love With Our iPhones?

Academic researchers across the Internet were buzzing this weekend over an editorial, which appeared on the New York Times website on Friday, claiming that iPhone users literally "loved" their popular, multi-functional smartphone.

"With Apple widely expected to release its iPhone 5 on Tuesday, Apple addicts across the world are getting ready for their latest fix," branding consultant Martin Lindstrom wrote in the opinion piece.

"But should we really characterize the intense consumer devotion to the iPhone as an addiction? A recent experiment that I carried out using neuroimaging technology suggests that drug-related terms like 'addiction' and 'fix' aren't as scientifically accurate as a word we use to describe our most cherished personal relationships," he added. "That word is 'love.'"

Lindstrom explained that he had conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) earlier this summer. He took 16 subjects (8 men and 8 women) between the ages of 18 and 25 and studied their reactions to both video and audio of a ringing and vibrating iPhone.

He said that in each instance, the stimuli activated both the audio and visual cortices of the subjects brains--experiencing, in his words, a "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," Lindstrom said. "In short, the subjects didn´t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Instead, they loved [emphasis in the original] their iPhones."

University of Texas, Austin Neurobiology Professor Russell Poldrack was among those who strongly disagreed with Lindstrom's assertion.

"The argument of the article is that rather than our feelings about iphones reflecting something like an addiction driven by dopamine (which I have argued for in the past), our feelings about our digital devices instead reflect true love, based on fMRI," he wrote in an October 1 blog entry entitled " NYT Editorial + fMRI = complete crap."

"Insular cortex may well be associated with feelings of love and compassion, but this hardly proves that we are in love with our iPhones," he added. "So far as I can tell, this particular reverse inference was simply fabricated from whole cloth."

Likewise, Tal Yarkoni, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, asks, "How could a single fMRI experiment with 16 subjects viewing pictures of iPhones confirm or disconfirm the presence of addiction? “¦ To date, no one else has come close to identifying a clinically accurate fMRI biomarker for any kind of addiction“¦ So we should, to put it mildly, be very skeptical that Lindstrom´s study was ever in a position to do what he says it was designed to do."

"We should also ask all sorts of salient and important questions about who the people are who are supposedly in love with their iPhones," Yarkoni continued in his blog, [citation needed]. "We don´t know“¦ who the participants in Lindstrom´s sample, were, aside from the fact that they were eight men and eight women aged 18 to 25. But we´d like to know some other important things. For instance, were they selected for specific characteristics? Were they, say, already avid iPhone users? Did they report loving, or being addicted to their iPhones? If so, would it surprise us that people chosen for their close attachment to their iPhones also showed brain activity patterns typical of close attachment?"

He also said that the Times "is basically giving Lindstrom license to talk freely about scientific-sounding findings that can´t actually be independently confirmed, disputed, or critiqued by members of the scientific community with expertise in the very methods Lindstrom is applying (expertise which, one might add, he himself lacks). For all we know, he could have made everything up."

Finally, David Dobbs of Wired's "Neuron Culture" blog weighs in, writing that "Lindstrom's big fail is that he claims to spot clear sign of a very specific emotion -- not just love, but iPhone love -- in an area that shows up active in about a third of all fMRI studies“¦ It's a shame the Times ran such a thing on their Op-Ed page, which remains one of  the most prominent platforms in all of print media. It's significant, methinks, that it did NOT run in the Times science section; would never have passed muster there."


On the Net: