Respectful Insolence

I have this syndrome!

Finally, there’s a word for a feeling that many people have no doubt experienced many times:

Some call it “phantom vibration syndrome.” Others prefer “vibranxiety” — the feeling when you answer your vibrating cellphone, only to find it never vibrated at all.
“It started happening about three years ago, when I first got a cellphone,” says Canadian Steven Garrity, 28, of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. “I’d be sitting on the couch and feel my phone start to vibrate, so I’d reach down and pull it out of my pocket. But the only thing ringing was my thigh.”

Though no known studies have analyzed what may cause spontaneous buzzing, anecdotes such as Garrity’s ring true with the public.

Spurred by curiosity, Garrity, a Web developer, described the recurring false alarms on his blog. The response was not imaginary: More than 30 cellphone users reported that they, too, experienced phantom vibrations.

“I ended up hearing from a lot of people who said, ‘Hey, the exact same thing happens to me,’ ” Garrity says. “And it was somewhat comforting, because it made me think I wasn’t insane, after all.”


Contrary to the implication of this article, this is not a new phenomenon, at least not for me and, I suspect, many doctors. Long before I ever owned a cell phone, I wore a pager, and, like most pagers, it had a vibrate function. I’d leave it on “vibrate” much of the time when I was in areas where an obnoxious beeping noise would irritate people. Over time, I’d notice “false alarms,” where I thought the pager had gone off but would find that it had not when I checked it. I’d notice this effect particularly during times when I was expecting to get barraged with pages.

Apparently, this is what’s happening:

Psychologically, the key to deciphering phantom vibrations is “hypothesis-guided search,” a theory that describes the selective monitoring of physical sensations, says Jeffrey Janata, director of the behavioral medicine program at University Hospitals in Cleveland. It suggests that when cellphone users are alert to vibrations, they are likely to experience sporadic false alarms, he says.

“You come armed with this template that leads you to be attentive to sensations that represent a cellphone vibrating,” Janata says. “And it leads you to over-incorporate non-vibratory sensations and attribute them to the idea that you’re receiving a phone call.”

Alejandro Lleras, a sensation and perception professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, adds that learning to detect rings and vibrations is part of a perceptual learning process.

“When we learn to respond to a cellphone, we’re setting perceptual filters so that we can pick out that (ring or vibration), even under noisy conditions,” Lleras says. “As the filter is created, it is imperfect, and false alarms will occur. Random noise is interpreted as a real signal, when in fact, it isn’t.”

Phantom cellphone vibrations also can be explained by neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to form new connections in response to changes in the environment.

When cellphone users regularly experience sensations, such as vibrating, their brains become wired to those sensations, Janata says.

“Neurological connections that have been used or formed by the sensation of vibrating are easily activated,” he says. “They’re over-solidified, and similar sensations are incorporated into that template. They become a habit of the brain.”

All I know is that it’s an occasional annoying sensation that I used to get with my pager. Now I get it when I’m wearing my cell phone. I suppose that’s progress.

Comments

  1. #1 factician
    June 25, 2007

    I gave up my cell phone 2 years ago, and kept having those phantom vibrations for a couple months…

  2. #2 NJ
    June 25, 2007

    Clearly, it is due to mercury toxicity. However, I have this chelate that can rid you of the problem for the low, low price of….

  3. #3 ebohlman
    June 25, 2007

    On a (slightly) more serious note, I wonder how applicable these explanations are to the etiology and treatment of somatic hypervigilance. The phenomenon reminded me of the extreme form of hypervigilance that occurs in some people with emetophobia (a pathological fear of vomiting which is a lot more disabling than most people would imagine); emetophobes are often convinced that they’re experiencing nausea when they really aren’t, because they’ve become unable to “tune out” the perfectly ordinary sensations of a functioning GI tract. It seems to be a conditioned phenomenon with some sort of positive feedback that makes it worse over time.

    A lot of woo-meisters seem to not only cater to, but cultivate somatic hypervigilance in their “patients,” convincing them that the perception of any sort of internal sensation is pathological (I wonder how much of this is due to the influence of a strain of Christian belief that implies that having a “carnal” body is something to be ashamed of).

  4. #4 Marc
    June 25, 2007

    I get this with things that I KNOW don’t vibrate, like my mouse and my floor.

  5. #5 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    June 25, 2007

    There’s a meta-analysis claiming an effect for echinacea tha could use the skeptical treatment:
    Study finds echinacea may prevent colds

  6. #6 Alex, FCD
    June 25, 2007

    Therapist: There’s no cure.
    Dilbert: I don’t want to cure it, I want to relocate it.

  7. #7 obscurifer
    June 25, 2007

    I have many times reached into my pocket to answer my vibrating cell phone only to find that it isn’t in that pocket.

    Stupid brain. I’ll show *you* who’s boss.

  8. #8 shadowfax
    June 25, 2007

    Oh lord I get this all the time.

  9. #9 Steevl
    June 25, 2007

    I’ve been imagining I hear the “new message” notification sounds of instant messaging programs since ICQ (peep-oh!); these days it’s mainly the MSN noise. The phantom cell phone vibrations did freak me out to start with though!

  10. #10 David Holland
    June 25, 2007

    I used to have something very similar to this. When my son was just born I could hardly take a shower. As soon as I turned the water on I would hear him crying. I would turn the water off and it would stop. It was never real but I could hear it distinctly.

  11. #11 Mystic Olly
    June 25, 2007

    I would suggest the following reason.

    Before cell phones minor vibrations in muscle/clothing would have been ignored. Your legs would have habituated to these minor sensations. However since the advent of vibrating cell phones, we have trained our bodies to be more sensitive of these vibrations ie to notice them because they could be an important information input. Thus this heightened sensitivity leads to more false positives.

    But may be that reasoning is crap – I ain’t no scientitian.

    Olly

  12. #12 Mystic Olly
    June 25, 2007

    Aaargh,

    Should’ve read the whole article before mouthing off.

    Olly

  13. #13 Adrian
    June 25, 2007

    This is really interesting. I would always ignore it, but at school I do get a lot of phantom vibrations from my cellphone while it’s in my pocket.

  14. #14 angry doc
    June 26, 2007

    “All I know is that it’s an occasional annoying sensation that I used to get with my pager.”

    I dub it “Houseman’s Disease”. Of course, that will be “Intern’s Disease” for you… :)

  15. #15 Doc Bill
    June 26, 2007

    Not only do I feel false vibrations, especially after a burrito lunch, but occasionaly I hear an old fashioned telephone bell clear as, well, a bell.

    I think it’s Michael Egnor calling.

    Through the ether.

  16. #16 Inquisitive Raven
    June 26, 2007

    Since I don’t generally keep my cell phone on vibrate, I don’t have this problem. However, when I occasionally did the overnight shift as an EMT, I’d get phantom tones. Eventually, I figured out that the something in the duct work of the room I was sleeping was whistling, and that in my semi-conscious state, I was interpreting it as dispatch tones. The whole thing stopped when the company completely rebuilt the fire house, and put in real bunk rooms.

  17. #17 Brendan
    June 26, 2007

    I haven’t experienced the phantom vibrations yet, but I’ve only been using vibrate for a month or so. Phantom rings, on the other hand. . . Due to the nature of my ring tone (“Hey! Listen!”, for those of you who played Ocarina of Time), little background noises get picked up by my ears, and interpreted as rings. Or used to. I haven’t really had that since I started using vibrate. Freaked me out, though. I kinda thought I was hallucinating.

  18. #18 albatross
    June 26, 2007

    I’ve noticed both the expected-vibrate and expected-sound syndromes. I hadn’t thought about it, but this makes good sense as an explanation. It’s like you’re doing Bayesian analysis on the question of whether or not you’ve received a signal you’re expecting, and the fact that you’re expecting it changes your priors so that a smaller bit of agreeing evidence triggers it. (There’s probably some more sensible explanation involving excitation levels in a neural network or something.)

    It seems like similar phenomenon happens when you read through medical/psychology books, and briefly entertain the notion that you have each disease or condition listed.

  19. #19 Jesse
    June 26, 2007

    This is exactly why I stopped answering my cellphone. I have since stopped caring if my phone rings. My wife doesn’t appreciate it though.

  20. #20 AgnosticOracle
    June 28, 2007

    I often have it happen where as I reach to pull my cell phone from my pocket I notice it is sitting on my desk. Good to know it isn’t just me.