Days before Apple founder Steve Jobs died, the New York Times ran an op-ed proclaiming that “You Love Your iPhone. Literally.” Our infatuation with our iPhones is not mere addiction, but genuine love, the piece asserted, because brain scans proved it. There’s no doubt that Jobs’ computers were the first of their kind to engender such widespread and ardent passion. So why did 45 neuroscientists write an angry letter to the Times disputing the science behind the contention?
The paradoxes of love have perhaps never been clearer than in our relationships with Apple products — the warm, fleshy desire we feel for such cold, hard, glassy objects. But Jobs knew how to inspire material lust. He knew that consumers want something that not only sparkles and awes, but also feels accessible, easy to use, an object with which we want to merge and to feel one and the same.
Not coincidentally, that’s how people describe the experience of taking psychedelic drugs. It feels profoundly artificial yet deeply real, both high-tech and earthy-crunchy, human and mystically divine — in a word, transcendent. Jobs had this experience. He said that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he’d ever done. “He said there were things about him that people who had not tried psychedelics — even people who knew him well, including his wife — could never understand,” John Markoff reported for the Times.
As attested by the nearly spiritual devotion so many consumers have to Jobs’ creations, the former Apple chief (and indeed many other top technology pioneers) appeared to have found enduring inspiration in LSD. Research shows that the psychedelic experience is, in fact, long lasting: a new study published last week found that people who took magic mushrooms (psilocybin) had long-term personality changes, becoming more open, more curious, more intellectually engaged and more creative. These personality shifts persisted more than a year after taking the drugs.
But back to the notion that we “love” our iPhones. As the angry neuroscientists pointed out in their letter to the Times, brain scanning technology can’t identify love just by looking at what regions are active. It’s not that simple. The op-ed writer said that subjects’ insular cortexes — a brain region associated with feelings of love and compassion — lit up in response the sound of their phones, just as they would have responded to the presence of a romantic partner or family member. Problem is, the insula also lights up when people feel disgust and in about one-third of brain scanning experiments in general.
The op-ed tried to make the point that iPhone users’ feelings about their devices surpassed addiction and entered the territory of love. But the truth is that addiction and love are probably indistinguishable, at least in the brain — both feelings fill you with desire and light up your pleasure regions. (If love isn’t doing that for you, then you’re doing it wrong.)
And brains don’t have “addiction pathways,” as is so often suggested. Rather, the key regions involved in addiction have evolved to ensure that humans find pleasure and reward in experiences like eating, sex and child-rearing — enough so that we survive and pass on our genes. Drugs merely mimic the body’s own brain chemicals that underlie the experience of joy, desire and connection — and perhaps using an iPhone.
Here’s what LSD and iPhones do have in common: they make us feel divinely connected to our environments and to other people, they lift mood and bring us joy, they enrich humanity. Is that love? Maybe. But at their worst, drugs and computers can also create distance and trigger addiction, which can destroy human connection and affection.