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Jason's Phone

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
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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iStock

Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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