A recent book review in the Wall Street Journal slammed “branding guru” Martin Lindstrom’s use of the “amygdala as a sales tool” in his latest neuromarketing tome, Brandwashed. This is not Lindstrom’s first brush with controversy in the neuroscientific community. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, he claimed that people were “in love” with their smartphones based on a neuromarketing firm-sponsored fMRI experiment that showed activity of the insular cortex while subjects were exposed audio and video of iPhones. According to Lindstrom, this brain area is “associated with feelings of love and compassion,” which indicates that humans become emotionally attached to their gadgets. This did not sit well in the scientific community. In a response signed by 45 neuroscientists, Lindstrom’s “evidence” was refuted, as the insular cortex is, in fact, active in up to one-third of imaging studies, and is typically associated with negative, rather than positive emotions.
Something I have been thinking and talking a lot about lately is the use of “scientific findings” in product development and marketing. The reasons are probably obvious. After spending several years obtaining rigorous scientific training, I have made the somewhat-controversial move into “industry,” where I use my academic preparation in developing games and apps based on “good science.” One question that crosses my mind almost daily is: How do I make sure to never sell out science? What I mean by that is that I never want angry neuroscientists after me. (Full disclosure, I know the lead author on that letter to the editor personally. Science, like every other industry, is a small world.) This typically happens when findings are overgeneralized or taken out of context. The insular cortex may be associated with love and compassion, but it is associated with many other things as well.
I want to help create products that kids enjoy (and parents buy). I also believe in developing these games and apps based on well-documented findings from the science of learning and cognitive development. How do I avoid angry scientists (and misleading the public)? How can we all be better consumers?
At the moment, I am focusing on being true to my craft. Anything that wouldn’t fly in the laboratory or ivory tower should not and will not fly in my new industry. I will be careful in the ways I choose words to market the products I build.
What are some tips to becoming a scientifically savvy consumer? Be wary of marketing pitches. Don’t believe everything you read. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is (i.e., no, your baby probably can’t read). I will continue to work on being both a responsible scientist and informed consumer on a daily basis. After all, I never want to sell out science. I love what I do and what I have been trained to do. I firmly believe in the importance of rigorous methodology, and understand just how much time, effort, and dedication it takes to execute a well-designed experiment. Also, angry scientists are really intimidating.