Mind

You Use Your Partner To Phone And Play Angry Birds. Literally.

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticOct 8, 2011 12:30 PM

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WITH lots of weddings expected on Tuesday, people in love across the world are getting ready for their latest fix.

But should we really characterize the intense devotion shown by people in love, as love? A recent experiment that I carried out using neuroimaging technology suggests that love-related terms like “romance” and “soulmates” aren’t scientifically accurate - not compared to a word we use to describe our relationships with our smartphones. That word is “owning an iPhone.”

As a branding consultant, why am I even writing this article for the NYT? Never mind. 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 (sic)... wait, are those last two actually addictive? Whatever, let's just say they are.

In conjunction with the San Diego-based firm MindSign Neuromarketing (kerching! Wait, did I write that, or just think it?), 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 wife or husband.

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 their partner, they “heard” them, too. This powerful cross-sensory phenomenon is known as "the brain storing information about people and objects, and retrieving it in response to related stimuli", or "memory" to use the technical term.

But most striking of all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which has also been associated with seeing an iPhone. The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their partner as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a top of the range smartphone (with free WiFi in thousands of locations!)

In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction when they were shown pictures of their lovers. Instead, they made calls and played Angry Birds on them.

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The silliness of equating insula activation on fMRI with love and using this to argue that we love our iPhones as a recent crap OpEd in the New York Times did, has been excellently covered over at [Citation Needed], Neurocritic and many others. I'm sure you've heard plenty about this story already.

But let's set aside the fact that loads of other things, by no means limited to disgust and drug addiction, are known to involve the insula in fMRI. Let's assume (as the NYT piece did) that the only two things that had ever been shown to activate the insula were seeing an iPhone and seeing someone you love.

This study still wouldn't show that people love their phones. You could equally well turn the whole thing on its head and argue that it shows that we think of people we love as something to make phone calls with. Hey, the brain activity is the same as when you look at an iPhone.

This might strike you as implausible, but given the fMRI data alone, you have no grounds for saying one interpretation is more or less plausible than the other.

There are countless other interpretations, each equally plausible given the imaging data. Maybe the insula is only about love, and the activation to the iPhone is due to conditioned association (you call people you love on it). Maybe it's about objects you see every day, which includes your phone and people you love. Maybe...

The only reason to prefer any particular interpretation would be because you have evidence from outside neuroimaging - from other areas of neuroscience or psychology. So if you discovered that insula lesions cause people to be unable to fall in love (they don't, as far as I know) then you could make a case for the love interpretation. But only then.

Neuroimaging, on its own, can't tell us anything about the brain. It's like a peek under the hood of your car. If you already know how a car works, you can look under the hood and work out what's going on, and what's gone wrong. But only if you have that prior knowledge. Otherwise, it's just a big set of metal pipes.

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