Spare the Tune When Shooting the Piano Player

The blogosphere is buzzing with lots of vitriol for Martin Lindstrom’s piece on the ‘neuroscience’ of loving your iPhone.  To be sure, there’s plenty to spew about, and many of my colleagues in neuroscience, neurotechnology and neuroethics have brought the issues to the fore: inapt misrepresentation of neuroscience, miscommunication of neuroscientific theory and findings, fallacious thinking both as regards the ways that neuroimaging can and should be used (e.g. the fallacy of false cause/post hoc ergo propter hoc – attributing the antecedents to the consequential), and the conceptualization of structure-function relations in the brain (what Bennett and Hacker have called the mereological fallacy of attributing the function of the whole solely to one of the constituent parts), and last, but certainly not least, plain misuse of terms and constructs (e.g. “synesthesia”).

There’s a lot there – and I think certainly enough – to justify the bad buzz. Let me offer an  analogy to what I see going on: picture one of those western movies where a bunch of guys are sitting around a card table playing cards and humming a tune, and they get pissed off at the honky tonk piano player for the way he butchers their favorite song; the guy keeps playing and in short order becomes ten fingers of target for a lot of Colt revolver rounds. Lesson learned: when the guys hummin’ the tune tell you that you’re botching it, shut up, listen, and either play it the right way, or play something else.

Same here. Mr Lindstrom, if you’re going to write about neuroscience and even claim to do neuroscientific work, then write about it in a way that garners some respect for the facts and realities of the field and don’t devolve into neurolalia and neuro-nonsense. In other words, if you’re gonna play it – play it right (or you shouldn’t play it at all).

Look, the piece could’ve been written a bit tongue-in-cheek…from the standpoint of “…given all the hoopla about neuroscience and neurotechnology, we might even be able to claim – albeit fallaciously – that the use of an iPhone, or any other gadget to which we develop a pattern of use and reliance, activates brain regions that might be considered to be substrates for love.” Then get into a discussion of why there are some real problems with that conclusion, address the whole neuro-nonsense thing, and reinforce that certain technologies might in fact alter the way neurological mechanisms are engaged to process various types of information, and even emotions. No harm there.

Or, it could’ve been spun that what might be going on is that communication devices like iPhones, and the legion of related products, foster feelings of expectation and anticipation (I could pop in a link here to a clip of Tim Curry in drag, but I won’t) because of the social interactions and connections they generate and sustain.  Same might be said for the accessibility to information; you know, the whole “extended/external lobe’ and “bio-psychosocial implications of new media” discussions. And, as matter of fact, an iPhone – or any other device that keeps us connected to our social sphere – might be a great way to fortify the bonds of attachment, and stay in touch with friends, lovers, and family. In today’s world of social isolation and long distance relationships, that little bit of technology could be the very tool we need to “…order some good Champagne and find love and compassion” – in a new fashioned way.  That’s one of the reasons we’re so enamored of these tools in the first place – they keep our social connectivity in the palm of our hand. No harm in those claims either.

Or, he could’ve stated that people really are attached to technology, and played the “technology as ideology,” “technology as social force,” “technological imperative,” and even the iterative cyborgization tune – certainly no harm, no foul.

And if he wanted to get cheeky in that discussion, both a colloquial and real use of the word ‘love’ relative to feelings toward things technological might not have been off base: Being a card-carrying motor-head, I know plenty of people who fuss, fawn and get misty eyed over a ’63 Jag E-Type or a ‘66 Mustang – and I’m one of them. And while I’m sure that neuroeconomics and neuromarketing approaches could be used, and might be of some value, to assess what neural mechanisms might be engaged by a Jag, 60’s muscle car, Porsche, or Prius, it’s still a long stretch – and a false one – to claim that my “Porsche circuit” is active, or that my “Shelby Cobra neurons” are firing, just as it’s off key to claim that my iPhone-neurons are sparking and my I love my iPhone circuitry is engaged!

So the justification for collectively drawing and aiming our academic pistols is as much for what Mr. Lindstrom didn’t play as for what he did.  I rally at length against neuro-nonsense and neurolalia, but I haven’t read the original papers describing Mr. Lindstrom’s work that “…looked at subjects’ brain activity as they viewed consumer images” or  “…an fMRI experiment to find out if iPhones were really, truly addictive,” nor were these cited in the article. For all I know they very well might’ve been rigorous and well done, and the results presented in peer-reviewed scientific journals in ways that were scholarly, sound and not over-inflated.

So, while the NY Times article could’ve – and as we’re hearing from the neuroscientific community, should’ve - been written differently, we might wait before firing, and recall that.  “…all the news that’s fit to print” doesn’t necessarily dictate that a position piece like Lindstrom’s is “news.” Moreover, sometimes – if not often times – the depth of discussion needed to accurately describe neuroscientific research and findings exceeds the space limits of the media format. Indeed, it may be a case of “…all the news that fits, we print.”

Still, I’m of the opinion that anyone who conducts neuroscientific research and presents it in the public media has a responsibility to do so in ways that are as accurate as possible, and as balanced as necessary. I wholly agree that Mr. Lindstrom’s rendition of neuroscientific findings was way off key. But maybe, instead of peppering this guy with volleys from our scholarly sidearms, we should fire a resounding warning shot (or maybe just render a flesh wound). Either way, that ought to get some attention.

Here’s why I say this – we really need the media to “play the tune” in accompaniment to our singing.  I’m all for “getting the word out” about neuroscientific research, its findings and the promise and pitfalls of using neuroscientific techniques and technologies in medicine, and the social sphere. I also think it’s great for the media to address the hazards of neuro-nonsense and neurolalia.  To borrow a quote from clothier Sy Syms, “…an educated consumer is our best customer.”

Neuroscience is resonating outside of the ivory tower and is part of the public discourse, and I think it’s important to engage the media in reporting on and about neuroscience.  There’s a responsibility here – both on the part of those of us who work in the field, and those who report on it.  But this is relatively new – the silos of academia have only just begun to be cracked by the resources of open access publishing, and internet dissemination of papers, lectures and conferences, and so it might take some practice with these instruments to get the tune right and play in orchestrated harmony.

Let’s face it, the reason we’re miffed in the first place is that our favorite tune – namely the depiction of neuroscience and its potential and problems – were botched.  That’s a tune very much worth singing, in its high notes and low notes, and there’s plenty of room in the score for harmony. But there is a score, and being off key, or hitting the wrong notes in some attempt to ad lib can ruin the tune – or worse, change it into something very different.

Like music, neuroscience has power in what it conveys – it can be upbeat and rousing, deep and contemplative, a dirge of dismay, or be used as propaganda.  I’ve no problem with an orchestrated approach to the complex harmonies of neuroscience, the information it conveys and the outcomes and products it delivers; indeed it can resound like Puccini or Wagner, and I’m all for lots of folks humming along and whistling the tune, but let’s respect the composers and do justice to the listeners, and not turn it into a jingle for selling newspapers.

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