Saturday, October 1, 2011

When good science is used badly

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, branding guru and self-described scientist Martin Lindstrom gives a perfect example of why scientific tools should only be used by professional scientists and not self-trained hacks.  In his article titled "You love your iPhone. Literally." Mr. Lindstrom made the case that we are not addicted to our smart phones, but that we have established a relationship with our technology that is on par with the process of "love."

Mr. Lindstrom would have you believe that he's not just giving his professional opinion as a marketing consultant, but that he has scientific data to validate this claim.  However let's take a close look at these spurious claims.

First, Mr. Lindstrom describes an imaging experiment that he undertook to see if marketed brand names engage the same brain circuits as religious symbols.
"A few years back, I conducted an experiment to examine the similarities between some the world’s strongest brands and the world’s greatest religions. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests, my team looked at subjects’ brain activity as they viewed consumer images involving brands like Apple and Harley-Davidson and religious images like rosary beads and a photo of the pope. We found that the brain activity was uncannily similar when viewing both types of imagery."
To someone who doesn't live in the world of brain images all day (like I do), this sounds pretty promising right?  You might think, "Huh? My brain is activated the same way when I see the Apple logo as when I see the Madonna of Brugges."  But that is nowhere close to what these results reflect.  Now I haven't seen the details of his study, so I can't lay claim to the soundness of his methodologies.  However, I can point out two major inconsistencies in his interpretations.

First, seeing "uncannily similar" brain areas engaged when seeing objects and religious symbols is not that surprising. It's not surprising that visual symbols are encoded in the same brain networks.  They're visual stimuli with interpretive meaning.  But that doesn't mean that you value them the same way.  A symbol may just be a symbol as far as the brain is concerned.

Second, Mr. Lindstrom is committing one of the most basic of scientific fallacies.  Not detecting a difference between two conditions isn't the same thing as there not being a difference.  It is called "arguing the null hypothesis".  In science we can't say anything definitive about differences that we don't see, only difference that we do.  Just because monkeys and children pick their noses at the same rate does not mean that they're the same creature.  But this is essentially Mr. Lindstrom's conclusion.

Okay, so he's a bad fMRI researcher.  Big deal... there are a lot of them these days.  Let's look at some of Mr. Lindstrom's other data.

"...I gathered a group of 20 babies between the ages of 14 and 20 months. I handed each one a BlackBerry. No sooner had the babies grasped the phones than they swiped their little fingers across the screens as if they were iPhones, seemingly expecting the screens to come to life."

This again is wrong in so many ways.  As anyone who has ever interacted with children can tell you, they aren't the most coordinated of folks.  In fact the brain systems that regulate our movements aren't fully developed until you're almost a teenager.  Did Mr. Lindstrom give phones to children from countries where iPhones aren't as common for a control group?  Presumably not, but that would be one way to see whether this behavior is just random grasping from people without fully formed cerebellums.

Perhaps most importantly, children imitate adults.  They adopt the behaviors of the people around them as a way of learning the world.  That's a key part of development (as evidenced by these two kids who obviously don't know how to speak, but sure know how to act like it). Just because children are imitating their parents doesn't mean that they value them in the same way as Mr. Lindstrom appears to be suggesting.

Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, Mr. Lindstrom reports on yet another brain imaging study.  In this case he presented either a visual movie of a ringing phone or the sound of a ringing phone.  
"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."
Had Mr. Lindstrom bothered to go to Wikipedia, he would know that this effect is not synesthesia.  Synesthesia is an inherent, hard-wired "cross connection" in the brain.  It's not learned.

What Mr. Lindstrom is in fact reporting is the very simple result of Hebbian learning: "neurons that fire together wire together."  Seeing visual areas light up with certain auditory (or tactile) stimulation is a fairly commonplace finding in the brain imaging literature.  We often both see the phone light up (or vibrate) and hear it ringing at the same time.  Eventually an association is formed within the brain.  Mr. Lindstrom would probably see the same thing if he showed his subjects a picture of a baby crying, a doorbell, etc.

Finally, there's this last bit of "evidence" (quotes are mine).
"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."
There are a host of other areas that are also associated with "love and compassion" in the brain.  There's not one single area that encodes these concepts.  As far as I know, there is no definitive conclusion about where the concept of "love" is encoded in the brain.

So this becomes a guilt by association conclusion: brain area A is active when experiencing X and Y, therefore X is the same as Y (or worse, X causes Y). If Mr. Lindstrom had seen the same area of the brain engaged when he presented an image of a fire-truck and an image of a t tomato, it doesn't mean that your brain thinks of the truck as being made of tomatos (nor that tomatoes are baby fire-trucks).  Sadly, this is a fallacy that many established neuroscientists also make.  But that's a topic of another post.

As a professional neuroscientist, my reaction to the findings Mr. Lindstrom presents in his op-ed is "So what?" Nothing he reports provides a shred of evidence that we "love" our iPhones, at least neuroscientifically speaking. Nor does he show that the experience of using your smart phone is the same as falling in love or having a religious experience.  All Mr. Lindstrom demonstrated was what can happen when the tools of sciences are placed in the wrong hands.

Perhaps all neuroimaging articles should come with the disclaimer: "Performed by trained professionals, do not try this at home."


  1. While perhaps not as compelling as your work on zombies, this is great stuff Tim.

  2. Thanks Scott. Although stay tuned. Some huge zombie stuff will hit here soon enough.