Have you had this experience? If you keep your phone in your pocket you sometimes (maybe even often) feel a vibration in the skin adjacent to your pocket and pull out your mobile phone, assuming it is a text or some sort of notification, only to discover that it was a phantom vibration. Or, if you keep your phone in a purse or satchel you imagine that you heard it vibrating, or even ringing, only to discover that it was a false alarm.
Phantom vibration syndrome or phantom ringing is the sensation and false belief that one’s mobile phone is vibrating or ringing, when in fact the telephone is not doing so.
Other terms for this concept include ringxiety (a portmanteau of ring and anxiety), hypovibrochondria (a mix of hypochondria and vibro) and fauxcellarm (a play on “false alarm”).
In the comic strip “Dilbert”, cartoonist Scott Adams referenced such a sensation in 1996 as “phantom-pager syndrome.”
The earliest published use of the term “phantom vibration syndrome” dates back to 2003 in an article entitled “Phantom Vibration Syndrome” published in the New Pittsburgh Courier, written under a pen name of columnist Robert D. Jones. In the conclusion of the article, Jones wrote, “…should we be concerned about what our mind or body may be trying to tell us by the aggravating imaginary emanations from belts, pockets and even purses? Whether PVS is the result of physical nerve damage, a mental health issue, or both, this growing phenomenon seems to indicate that we may have crossed a line in this ‘always on’ society.”
Nearly a decade later, the term had made its way to Australia as Macquarie Dictionary’s 2012’s “Word of the Year”.
Nearly 90 percent of college undergrads in a 2012 study said they felt phantom vibrations. The number was just as high for a survey of hospital workers, who reported feeling phantom vibrations on either a weekly or monthly basis.
“Something in your brain is being triggered that’s different than what was triggered just a few short years ago,” says Dr. Larry Rosen, a research psychologist who studies how technology affects our minds.
“If you’d ask me 10 years ago, or maybe even five years ago if I felt an itch beneath where my pocket of my jeans were, and asked me what I would do, I’d reach down and scratch it because it was probably a little itch caused by the neurons firing,” he says.
While 9 out of 10 participants in the study of college students said the vibration feeling bothered them only a little or not at all, Rosen still recommends backing away from our phones every once in a while to keep our anxiety levels down.
Psychologists use a concept called Signal Detection Theory to guide their thinking about the problem of perceptual judgments.
There are a lot of theories. Discovery News suggested that “[i]t could be because cell phones produce electrical signals that transmit the feeling of vibration directly to a person’s nerves or simply because of the mental anticipation of alerts.” Mental Floss explains how the first of the two theories would work, likening it to “a physical stimulation similar to what happens when your phone is near a speaker and you hear that weird buzzing sound as it does a ‘hand shake’ with a cell tower and gives off some electromagnetic interference.” And the anticipation aspect is not dissimilar from any other sort of psychological conditioning — we are so used to our phones vibrating that our brains make it feel like it is happening when we “want,” not when it actually does.
There’s some newer evidence suggesting that it’s all in our heads. In July of 2012, researchers published a study on the phantom vibration phenomenon after speaking with undergraduate students about the fake shakes. The vast majority experienced the vibrations, but, as Slate explains, the study found that extroverts and neurotics had it happen more often than the others.
Alex Blaszczynski, chairman of the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney, thinks it’s related to some of the electrical signals coming through in a transmission, touching on the surrounding nerves, giving a feeling of a vibration,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald, with the caveat that he hasn’t conducted any studies on the vibrations. If he’s right, it would mean vibes are not phantom, but a real sensation – a physical stimulation similar to what happens when your phone is near a speaker and you hear that weird buzzing sound as it does a “hand shake” with a cell tower and gives off some electromagnetic interference.
Phantom vibrations don’t appear to cause any harm, but if the mild annoyance is too much for you, they can be stopped. Thirty-nine percent of the people in Rothberg’s survey – all medical staff who had a phone or pager on them all day – were able to stop the vibrations either by taking the device off vibrate mode and using the audible ringer, changing the location of the device on their person, or using a different device (success rates were 75%, 63% and 50%, respectively).
Some of the suggestions include the following which each need to be done for 10 minutes every couple of hours:
- Take a short walk in nature or just go outside.
- Do a short mindful meditation session.
- Listen to music.
- Practice a foreign language.
- Read a joke book.
- Talk to someone in person or on the phone.