Saturday, October 01, 2011

Neuromarketing means never having to say you're peer reviewed (but here's your NYT op-ed space)

There's a truly hideous op-ed piece in the New York Times by neuromarketing guru Martin Lindstrom:
You Love Your iPhone. Literally.

Published: September 30, 2011

WITH 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.
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).

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, 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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At October 01, 2011 4:04 PM, Blogger Jay Levitt said...

Both you and Lindstrom got this COMPLETELY wrong.

Obviously, one-third of all study participants love fMRIs!

Please issue a correction forthwith.

At October 01, 2011 8:41 PM, Blogger Roger Dooley said...

Didn't you mean, "Don't buy 'Brandwashed'?"

At October 01, 2011 9:10 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Jay - Watch for my new book in 2012...

Roger - I did know Brandwashed had just been released, but it didn't sound as funny in context.

At October 02, 2011 10:20 AM, Anonymous Jakob said...

I love a neurobabble take down as much as the next gal, but one thing leads me to offtopictomfoolery:

"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)"

There had to be several papers published, in this century no less, to dissuade scientists from making bogus inferences from imaging techniques? No wonder neurobabble is so pervasive, if even the peers themselves need to publish studies to convince each other not to commit logical fallacies. The mind boggles.

At October 02, 2011 6:18 PM, Anonymous Geoff Aguirre said...

Hello Neurocritic --

Thanks, as always, for citing my 2003 chapter on the topic of reverse inference. Please use this updated link:



At October 02, 2011 6:50 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Geoff - Fixed the link. I'm always happy to cite your chapter.

Jakob - Sadly, neuroimagers aren't the only ones to commit logical fallacies and to report voodoo correlations and shoddy statistics. Nieuwenhuis et al. recently published a paper in Nature Neuroscience entitled, "Erroneous analyses of interactions in neuroscience: a problem of significance". This was basically about the failure to use ANOVAs to report interactions in high profile neuroscience papers. This gaffe was worse among cellular/molecular types than among the cognitive/behavioral neuroscientists.

At October 03, 2011 3:21 PM, Anonymous Christie Nicholson said...

Hi there...I am giving a talk to big audience of ad execs next week and I want to cite you and your blog -- Would you have any time to chat briefly on the phone?
later this week? If not, no worries at all - I can probably just use this one perfectly-timed example of the wrong path of neuromarketing.

At October 03, 2011 4:45 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Christie - It would be great if you cited my blog...

At October 05, 2011 1:41 AM, Anonymous Jakob said...

Yeah, there’s lots of shenanigans going on in the science community. Sometimes sarcasm is just a defense mechanism for sanity’s sake.

At October 05, 2011 2:49 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Jakob - I would say that the truly egregious shenanigans reflect poorly on neuromarketing and not the neuroscience community in general. But I agree with your comment on sarcasm!

At October 25, 2011 4:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"reverse inference", or causation and correlation confusion? Sh*& happens. I am reading Brandwashed and loving it. I don't expect Lindstrom to get it all right. But reverse inference can happen when experts in one field feel that when their research is used in another field that it will diminish their research.

At October 26, 2011 3:24 AM, Anonymous Whitematter Marketing said...

Well done on highlighting the core issues in neuromarketing.
We must align ourselves with academic correctness if the science is ever going to be taken seriously. Having only been born in 2002 blogs like this can assure these are just growing pains of a new industry.


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