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Why Do People Feel Phantom Cellphone Vibrations?

Jason's Phone
Jason's Phone

Let’s picture a typical moment in my day: I’m minding my own business, with my iPhone in my back pocket. Suddenly, my left cheek is shaking as the phone vibrates and does the bzzt, bzzt, bzzt-ing dance of its people on my backside. I check the phone, and there’s nothing. No call. No text. No email. No one has moved in Words With Friends or liked my pictures on Instagram. Nothing that would have made the phone vibrate, but I swear I felt it.

I don’t suffer these mysterious vibrations alone. In one study into the phenomenon - variously dubbed “phantom ringing,” “phantom vibration syndrome” and vibranxiety - phantom phone vibrations were experienced by 68% of the people surveyed, with 87% of those feeling them weekly, and 13% daily.

What is it that plagues our pockets?

The phantom vibrations have only recently gotten the attention of scientists, and while they’ve offered up opinions and hypotheses, peer-reviewed research on the ghostly buzzes is scarce.

Alex Blaszczynski, chairman of the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney, thinks the vibrating sensation is triggered by electrical activity. "I expect 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.

Anticipation

Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University offers a different idea in his book, iDisorder. He says that since we’re almost always anticipating some sort of technological interaction, especially with our smartphones, we inevitably interpret some unrelated stimuli, like our pants rubbing against our leg or a chair dragging against the floor, as a phone call.

The only published study on phantom vibrations that we were able to find focused on gauging vibranxiety’s prevalence, and didn’t examine the cause. But the researchers offered an educated guess similar to Rosen’s. Michael Rothberg, a clinician investigator at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, who conducted the survey mentioned earlier, says that vibranxiety might be caused by the misinterpretation of sensory signals in our brain.

“In order to deal with an overwhelming amount of sensory input,” Rothberg and his team say in their study, “the brain applies filters or schema based on what it expects to find, a process known as hypothesis guided search.” With the phantom vibrations, the brain sometimes misinterprets sensory input according to the preconceived hypothesis that a vibrating sensation will be coming from the phone. In other words, it seems smartphone users are just so primed for, and attentive to, the sensation of their phone going off that they simply experience the occasional false alarm.

Make It Stop!

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).

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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