Hot, Hot iPhone Love (More Terrible Neuromarketing)

I hate being late to a party. You finally arrive after the festivities have begun and you know that your friends have already been there for hours, having a grand time doing what they do best. So it is with the latest neuromarketing debacle involving the New York Times and the pseudoscience that appeared on the op-ed page. All the best stuff has already been written.

Summary:

A branding consultant (Martin Lindstrom) commissions a neuromarketing company (MindSign) to do a neuroimaging study. Sixteen subjects underwent fMRI data acquisition while being shown audio and video of ringing iPhones. Visual and auditory cortex was active across all conditions. There was also activity in the insula. The authors interpret the sensory cortex activity as a kind of cross-modal synesthesia experience. The authors further interpret the insula activity as the subjects experiencing feelings of love and compassion. Headlines around the web ring loudly with headlines “YOU LOVE YOUR iPHONE”.

Web points of interest:

1) Read the original op-ed piece by Martin Lindstrom to give yourself some context regarding what was said and the arguments that were made. It will probably make your skin crawl with tales of babies wanting cell phones to be iPhones and terrible definitions of synesthesia. Stick with it anyway.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/01/opinion/you-love-your-iphone-literally.html

2) Start at Russ Poldrack’s weblog and read his first post on the topic. He called it crap, and he was being direct and truthful.
http://www.russpoldrack.org/2011/10/nyt-editorial-fmri-complete-crap.html

3) Now read Tal Yarkoni’s excellent in-depth discussion of the problem. If you read nothing else today, go and check this one out.
http://www.talyarkoni.org/blog/2011/10/01/the-new-york-times-blows-it-big-time-on-brain-imaging/

4) Next, read the post by Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks, which is also a nice follow-up. Double points for using the term “facepalm jamboree”.
http://mindhacks.com/2011/10/02/the-new-york-times-wees-itself-in-public/

5) Finally, see the list of people who support Poldrack’s position on the Lindstrom article. Many of the best minds in neuroscience are agreed that the Op-Ed piece is not representative of good science:
http://www.russpoldrack.org/2011/10/signers-of-letter-to-editor-of-new-york.html

 


 

To be honest, I don’t have a whole lot to add to the conversation. On the topic of reverse inference you really can’t do better than Russ Poldrack and Tal Yarkoni. The Yarkoni blog post is particularly good, effectively nuking the Lindstrom piece from orbit. It is, in a way, poetic since Poldrack and Yarkoni are working on the databases and methods that will enable probabilities to be put on arguments such as Lindstrom’s. That is, if insula activation is observed how likely is it that the emotion of ‘love’ is being experienced. To give their technology a try surf on over to http://neurosynth.org/ and check it out.

One aspect of the debate that I am particularly interested in is the purported role of the insula in the experience of love and affection. Unfortunately, Lindstrom provided very little detail in terms of the spatial location of their insula activity, effectively preventing anyone from criticizing the work on that basis. But, for the sake of argument, let’s put the insular question forward. Does it matter where in the insula that the activity was observed? The short answer is: absolutely.

There is an excellent paper by A. D. “Bud” Craig entitled “Forebrain emotional asymmetry: a neuroanatomical basis?” that details how the left and right insula have a different pattern of connectivity to the homeostatic afferents that provide information on our current body state. Craig describes how the right insula is preferentially involved in sympathetic nervous system activity geared toward engaging with the environment, energy use, and even “fight or flight” responses. Conversely, the left insula is preferentially involved in parasympathetic activity geared toward contentment, energy conservation, and “rest and digest” responses.

In our evolution, humans seem to have bolted-on social components to this underlying insular emotional asymmetry. The right insula seems to be associated with the experience of social disgust and social avoidance. This has been seen in work such as the original Philips et al. (1997) paper, showing prominent right anterior insula activity during disgust. The left insula seems to be associated with the experience of social compassion and social approach. There is less evidence for this, but meta-analyses such as Ortigue et al. (2010) have reported this pattern.

In short, leaving out which hemisphere the results occurred in is a huge faux pax on the part of Lindstrom. It is not the greatest sin of the piece, and probably not even the greatest sin of the insula argument. Still, it is certainly a prominent FAIL from the perspective of a researcher with an interest in the insula.

 


 

 


 

One final point of discussion I would like to raise is with regard to an earlier prefrontal.org post on the Seven Sins of Neuromarketing. Let’s see which ones are most prominent in the current discussion:

1) The curtain of proprietary analysis methods limits our knowledge of how effective neuromarketing can be.

We have no idea what methods Lindstrom and his colleagues used to arrive at their findings. It could be the best study in the history of ever, or it could be riddled with common statistical flaws. We have no idea because the work isn’t peer-reviewed. As before, we don’t even know where in the insula the results were located!

3) Most people’s introduction to neuromarketing is through press releases, not peer-reviewed studies.

Let’s just establish this as a rule: the New York Times editorial page is not the right place to introduce the world to your cutting-edge, unproven fMRI methods. Period. In fact, we should come up with a verb for what always happens afterward: you get Poldrack’d.

4) Neuromarketing methods are not immune to subjectivity and bias.

In a way, scientific claims are guilty until proven innocent by empirical evidence. Honestly, can I trust a man who has written books with titles like Buyology, Brandwashed, and Brand Sense to be objective with regard to a neuromarketing study with a sensational headline? If this was work was peer-reviewed then we could evaluate his evidence in a balanced manner, but an Op-Ed piece does not allow for this luxury and leaves the question of bias open.

6) People are rushing the field to make a quick buck, and not everyone is trustworthy.

I think that this represents the case in point.

 


 

Ortigue S, Bianchi-Demicheli F, Patel N, Frum C, Lewis JW. (2010). Neuroimaging of love: fMRI meta-analysis evidence toward new perspectives in sexual medicine. J Sex Med. 7(11): 3541-3552.

Phillips ML, Young AW, Senior C, Brammer M, Andrew C, Calder AJ, Bullmore ET, Perrett DI, Rowland D, Williams SC, Gray JA, David AS. (1997). A specific neural substrate for perceiving facial expressions of disgust. Nature. 389(6650): 495-498.
 

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