There's a truly hideous op-ed piece in the New York Times by neuromarketing guru Martin Lindstrom:
You Love Your iPhone. Literally.Oh boy.... Reverse inference alert! Reverse inference alert! Lindstrom committed a logical fallacy - one cannot directly infer the participants' cognitive or emotional state from the observed pattern of brain activity in neuroimaging experiments. See papers by Aguirre (2003) and Poldrack (2006).
By MARTIN LINDSTROM
Published: September 30, 2011WITH Apple widely expected to release its iPhone 5 on Tuesday, Apple addicts across the world are getting ready for their latest fix.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. That word is “love.”. . .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. [NOTE: Not necessarily. It could also be called cross-modal activation.]
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.
Fortunately, Everybody's a Neurocritic! Reputable academic neuroimaging gurus Russ Poldrack and Tal Yarkoni have already written posts about this debacle: NYT Editorial + fMRI = complete crap and the New York Times blows it big time on brain imaging. Here they note the completely erroneous assumption that activation of insular cortex = love. As Yarkoni says:
The insula is one of a few ‘hotspots’ where activation is reported very frequently in neuroimaging articles (the other major one being the dorsal medial frontal cortex). So, by definition, there can’t be all that much specificity to what the insula is doing, since it pops up so often.In fact,
In Tal Yarkoni’s recent paper in Nature Methods [PDF], we found that the anterior insula was one of the most highly activated part of the brain, showing activation in nearly 1/3 of all imaging studies!In days of yore, The Neurocritic wrote about The Right and The Good and The Insula:
[The insula]'s a pretty large area. Besides being crowned the "seat of emotional reactions" (whatever that means), portions of the insula have been associated with interoceptive awareness, visceral sensation, pain, autonomic control, and taste, among other things... a lot of other things. Do a search of the BrainMap database using just two of the many insular foci reported by the Caltech researchers [Hsu et al., 2008] and you'll see activations related to action execution, speech, attention, language, explicit memory, working memory, and audition.Then Who Can You Trust? deconstructed a Science paper entitled The Rupture and Repair of Cooperation in Borderline Personality Disorder by King-Casas et al. (2008). The study examined how well individuals with borderline personality disorder trusted others in an economic exchange game (called, conveniently enough, the Trust Game). In brief,
The authors linked the insular activation to the detection of social norm violations in interpersonal contexts, concluding that individuals with BPD are deficient in this regard. But what are the participants really thinking about during the 4-8 sec interval following a stingy offer? Do we have yet another example of reverse inference here?
Below is a figure generated from entering the x, y, z coordinates from the right insular focus into the Sleuth program (available at brainmap.org), which searched the available database of papers for matches. The resulting list of coordinates and experiments was then imported into the GingerALE program, which performed a meta-analysis via the activation likelihood estimation (ALE) method (see this PDF). The figure illustrates that this exact same region of the right insula was activated during tasks that assessed speech, language, explicit memory, working memory, reasoning, pain, and listening to emotional music.
So there we have it. Let's all read a peer reviewed Nature Methods paper [PDF] instead of buying Buyology...
Oh, and let's all sign a Letter to the Editor of the NYT.
Aguirre GK (2003). Functional Imaging in Behavioral Neurology and Cognitive Neuropsychology. In: T.E. Feinberg & M.J. Farah (Eds.), Behavioral Neurology and Cognitive Neuropsychology. New York: McGraw Hill.
Hsu M, Anen C, Quartz SR. (2008). The Right and the Good: Distributive Justice and Neural Encoding of Equity and Efficiency. Science 320: 1092-1095.
King-Casas B, Sharp C, Lomax-Bream L, Lohrenz T, Fonagy P, Montague PR (2008). The Rupture and Repair of Cooperation in Borderline Personality Disorder. Science 321: 806-810.
Poldrack RA (2006). Can cognitive processes be inferred from neuroimaging data? Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10: 59-63.
Yarkoni T, Poldrack RA, Nichols TE, Van Essen DC, Wager TD. (2011). Large-scale automated synthesis of human functional neuroimaging data. Nat Methods 8:665-70.
Lobus insularis [Insula] (labels in English and Japanese)
According to Wikipedia, the insula "lies deep to the brain's lateral surface, within the lateral sulcus which separates the temporal lobe and inferior parietal cortex. These overlying cortical areas are known as opercula (meaning "lids"), and parts of the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes form opercula over the insula."
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