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.