NYT Seduced by Neuroscience Again

Here’s a scientific article that needs careful attention among editors of the New York Times op-ed page:

The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) x 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

Back in 2007, the Times published a a questionable op-ed titled “This Is Your Brain on Politics” that tried to interpret voters’ mental states based on fMRI data from 20 subjects. The analysis was promptly debunked by a group of prominent cognitive neuroscientists, who wrote that the article uses “flawed reasoning to draw unfounded conclusions.”

Unfortunately, the NYT doesn’t appear to have learned its lesson. On Saturday, it published an op-ed by a neuromarketer named Martin Lindstrom claiming that consumers showed brain activity consistent with “love” when “exposed separately to audio and to video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone.” And again, it’s not able to withstand serious scrutiny. Here’s The Neurocritic:

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).

Here’s UT-Austin neuroscientist Russ Austin:

Insular cortex may well be associated with feelings of love and compassion, but this hardly proves that we are in love with our iPhones. In Tal Yarkoni’s recent paper in Nature Methods, 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! Further, the well-known studies of love by Helen Fisher and colleagues don’t even show activation in the insula related to love, but instead in classic reward system areas. So far as I can tell, this particular reverse inference was simply fabricated from whole cloth. I would have hoped that the NY Times would have learned its lesson from the last episode.

And here’s Yarkoni himself, a neuroscientist at UC-Boulder:

This brings us to what might be the biggest whopper of all, and the real driver of the article title: the claim that “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.”

…[T]he insula (or at least the anterior part of the insula) plays a very broad role in goal-directed cognition. It really is activated when you’re doing almost anything that involves, say, following instructions an experimenter gave you, or attending to external stimuli, or mulling over something salient in the environment…

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. To put it differently, as Russ and others have repeatedly pointed out, the fact that a given region activates when people are in a particular psychological state (e.g., love) doesn’t give you license to conclude that that state is present just because you see activity in the region in question. If language, working memory, physical pain, anger, visual perception, motor sequencing, and memory retrieval all activate the insula, then knowing that the insula is active is of very little diagnostic value. That’s not to say that some psychological states might not be more strongly associated with insula activity (again, you can see this on Neurosynth if you switch the image type to ‘reverse inference’ and browse around); it’s just that, probabilistically speaking, the mere fact that the insula is active gives you very little basis for saying anything concrete about what people are experiencing.

In fact, to account for Lindstrom’s findings, you don’t have to appeal to love or addiction at all. There’s a much simpler way to explain why seeing or hearing an iPhone might elicit insula activation. For most people, the onset of visual or auditory stimulation is a salient event that causes redirection of attention to the stimulated channel. I’d be pretty surprised, actually, if you could present any picture or sound to participants in an fMRI scanner and not elicit robust insula activity. Orienting and sustaining attention to salient things seems to be a big part of what the anterior insula is doing (whether or not that’s ultimately its ‘core’ function). So the most appropriate conclusion to draw from the fact that viewing iPhone pictures produces increased insula activity is something vague like “people are paying more attention to iPhones”, or “iPhones are particularly salient and interesting objects to humans living in 2011.” Not something like “no, really, you love your iPhone!”

In sum, the NYT screwed up. Lindstrom appears to have a habit of making overblown claims about neuroimaging evidence, so it’s not surprising he would write this type of piece; but the NYT editorial staff is supposedly there to filter out precisely this kind of pseudoscientific advertorial. And they screwed up. It’s a particularly big screw-up given that (a) as of right now, Lindstrom’s Op-Ed is the single most emailed article on the NYT site, and (b) this incident almost perfectly recapitulates another NYT article 4 years ago in which some neuroscientists and neuromarketers wrote a grossly overblown Op-Ed claiming to be able to infer, in detail, people’s opinions about presidential candidates. That time, Russ Poldrack and a bunch of other big names in cognitive neuroscience wrote a concise rebuttal that appeared in the NYT (but unfortunately, isn’t linked to from the original Op-Ed, so anyone who stumbles across the original now has no way of knowing how ridiculous it is). One hopes the NYT follows up in similar fashion this time around. They certainly owe it to their readers — some of whom, if you believe Lindstrom, are now in danger of dumping their current partners for their iPhones.

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com]

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.