Why Do I Feel My Phone Vibrate Even When No One's Calling or Texting?

iStock
iStock

A few months ago, I decided to give up on text message alerts. Not because I wasn’t interested in replying, but because I couldn’t handle having my phone vibrate at random. I had started experiencing “phantom vibrations,” the false sensation that your phone is vibrating. Unwilling to deal with constant pinging ringtones, and filled with disappointment and embarrassment every time I reached into my pocket to find that my brain had invented the sensation of a vibrating alert, I opted to merely mute everything.

It worked. I no longer feel that phantom phone itch in my leg or where the bottom of my purse brushes against my body. (As it turns out, very few texts are actually urgent.)

I’m not the only person who hallucinates that someone is trying to communicate with me. Psychologist David Laramie dubbed the feeling “ringxiety” in his 2007 dissertation on mobile phone use and behavior, but it wasn’t invented with the cell phone. In 1996, ”phantom-pager syndrome” made an appearance in a Dilbert strip. The phenomenon has since been studied across age ranges, professions, and cultures.

A 2012 study of 290 Indiana undergraduates found that 89 percent had experienced some degree of phantom phone vibration, averaging about once every two weeks. Nor is it limited to phone-obsessed college kids. A study of hospital staffers, who are frequently tethered to pagers and phones at work, found that 68 percent of the 176 workers surveyed experienced phantom vibrations.

It’s not just vibrations, either. Laramie’s 2007 study of 320 adults found evidence for aural hallucinations, too—two-thirds of the participants actually thought they heard their phone ringing.

But why people feel vibrations where there are none is still up for debate. In the 2010 hospital worker study, the Massachusetts-based researchers hypothesized that the phantom signals “may result from a misinterpretation of incoming sensory signals by the cerebral cortex.” They continue:

In order to deal with the overwhelming amount of sensory input, the brain applies filters or schema based on what it expects to find, a process known as hypothesis guided search. In the case of phantom vibrations, because the brain is anticipating a call, it misinterprets sensory input according to this preconceived hypothesis. The actual stimulus is unknown, but candidate sensations might include pressure from clothing, muscle contractions, or other sensory stimuli.

Recently, a University of Michigan phone study posited that ringxiety is linked to insecurity. The 2016 study found that people with attachment anxiety (who are insecure in personal relationships) were more likely to experience frequent phantom vibrations. This seems to make sense: If you’re insecure in your romantic relationship, you’re probably more likely to obsess about whether or not your partner is texting you. Expecting a message or call, or being particularly concerned about something that you might be contacted about, was further associated with phantom alerts.

However, most studies have found that only a tiny fraction of people are seriously bothered by the phantom signals—typically around 2 percent of the populations examined [PDF]. In the Indiana study, “few [participants] found them bothersome,” the researchers noted. The hospital workers studied didn’t, either. Many reported phantom-vibration sufferers didn’t try to do anything about it. Others successfully rid themselves of the sensation: Of the 115 hospital workers who experienced phantom vibrations, 43 attempted to stop it by taking their device off vibrate or carrying it in a different place, with 75 percent and 63 percent success rates, respectively.

The best way to rid yourself of phantom vibrations, it seems, is to be a super secure person with no social anxieties. Or, you could just try moving your phone to a different pocket. 

This Smart Mug Alerts You When You've Had Too Much Caffeine

Ember
Ember

Since 2010, Ember has been giving perfectionists ultimate control over their morning coffee. Their travel mug lets you set the preferred temperature of your drink down to the degree when you're on the go, and their ceramic cup allows you to do the same in the office or at home. Now, in addition to telling you how hot your beverage is at all times, Ember lets you know how much caffeine you're consuming through Apple's Health app, CNET reports.

Ember's new feature takes advantage of the same Bluetooth technology that lets you control the temperature of you drink from your smartphone. Beginning October 17, you can connect your Ember vessel to your Apple device to keep track of what you're drinking. If you drink all your tea and coffee from an Ember mug, the Health app should be able to give you a rough estimate of your daily caffeine intake.

Ember wasn't originally designed to measure caffeine content, but its built-in sensors allow it do so. In order to maintain a constant temperature, the mug needs to know whether it's full or empty, and exactly how much liquid it's holding at any given time. The feature also gives you the option to preset your serving size within the app if you drink the same amount of coffee everyday. And if you like to drink specific beverages at their recommended temperatures, the mug can guess what type of drink it's holding based on how hot it is.

The new caffeine-calculating feature from Ember is especially useful for coffee addicts: If the mug senses you've exceeded your recommended caffeine intake for the day, it will alert you on your phone. Here are some energizing caffeine alternatives to keep that from happening.

[h/t CNET]

How Polygraphs Work—And Why They Aren't Admissible in Most Courts

iStock/Sproetniek
iStock/Sproetniek

The truth about lie detectors is that we all really want them to work. It would be much easier if, when police were faced with two contradictory versions of a single event, there was a machine that could identify which party was telling the truth. That’s what the innovators behind the modern-day polygraph set out to do—but the scientific community has its doubts about the polygraph, and all over the world, it remains controversial. Even its inventor was worried about calling it a "lie detector."

AN OFF-DUTY INVENTION

In 1921, John Larson was working as a part-time cop in Berkeley, California. A budding criminologist with a Ph.D. in physiology, Larson wanted to make police investigations more scientific and less reliant on gut instinct and information obtained from "third degree" interrogations.

Building on the work of William Moulton Marston, Larson believed that the act of deception was accompanied by physical tells. Lying, he thought, makes people nervous, and this could be identified by changes in breathing and blood pressure. Measuring these changes in real-time might serve as a reliable proxy for spotting lies.

Improving upon previously developed technologies, Larson created a device that simultaneously recorded changes in breathing patterns, blood pressure, and pulse. The device was further refined by his younger colleague, Leonarde Keeler, who made it faster, more reliable, and portable and added a perspiration test.

Within a few months, a local newspaper ​convinced Larson to publicly test his invention on a man suspected of killing a priest. Larson's machine, which he called a cardio-pneumo psychogram, indicated the suspect’s guilt; the press dubbed the invention a lie detector.

Despite the plaudits, Larson would become skeptical about his machine’s ability to reliably detect deception—especially in regards to Keeler’s methods which amounted to “a psychological third-degree." He was concerned that the polygraph had never matured into anything beyond a glorified stress-detector, and believed that American society had put too much faith in his device. Toward the end of his life, he would refer to it as “a Frankenstein’s monster, which I have spent over 40 years in combating.”

But Keeler, who patented the machine, was much more committed to the lie-detection project, and was eager to see the machine implemented widely to fight crime. In 1935, results of Keeler’s polygraph test were admitted for the first time as evidence in a jury trial—and secured a conviction.

HOW IT WORKS

In its current form, the polygraph test measures changes in respiration, perspiration, and heart rate. Sensors are strapped to the subject's fingers, arm, and chest to report on real-time reactions during interrogation. A spike on these parameters indicates nervousness, and potentially points to lying.

To try to eliminate false-positives, the test ​relies on "control questions."

In a murder investigation, for instance, a suspect may be asked relevant questions such as, "Did you know the victim?" or "Did you see her on the night of the murder?" But the suspect will also be asked broad, stress-inducing control questions about general wrongdoing: "Did you ever take something that doesn't belong to you?" or "Did you ever lie to a friend?" The purpose of the control questions is to be vague enough to make every innocent subject anxious (who hasn't ever lied to a friend?). Meanwhile, a guilty subject is likely to be more worried about answering the relevant questions.

This difference is what the polygraph test is about. According to the American Psychological Association, “A pattern of greater physiological response to relevant questions than to control questions leads to a diagnosis of ‘deception.’” They proclaim that, "Most psychologists agree that there is little evidence that polygraph tests can accurately detect lies."

But a diagnosis of deception doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has actually lied. A polygraph test doesn’t actually detect deception directly; it only shows stress, which was why Larson fought so hard against it being categorized as a "lie detector." Testers have a variety of ways to infer deception (like by using control questions), but, according to the American Psychological Association, the inference process is “structured, but unstandardized” and should not be referred to as “lie detection.”

And so, the validity of the results remains a subject of debate. Depending on whom you ask, the reliability of the test ranges from near-certainty to a coin toss. The American Polygraph Association claims the test has an almost 90 percent accuracy rate. But many psychologists—and even some ​police officers—contend that the test is ​biased toward finding liars and has a 50 percent chance of hitting a false-positive for honest people.

NOT QUITE THE SAME AS FINGERPRINTS

Most countries have traditionally been skeptical about the polygraph test and only a handful have incorporated it into their legal system. The test remains most popular in the United States, where many police departments rely on it to extract confessions from suspects. (In 1978, former CIA director Richard Helms argued that that's because "Americans are not very good at" lying.)

Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued numerous rulings on the question of whether polygraph tests should be admitted as evidence in criminal trials. Before Larson’s invention, courts treated lie-detection tests with suspicion. In a 1922 case, a judge prohibited the results of a pre-polygraph lie detector from being presented at trial, worrying that the test, despite its unreliability, could have an unwarranted sway on a jury’s opinion.

Then, after his polygraph results secured a conviction in a 1935 murder trial (through prior agreement between the defense and prosecution), Keeler—Larson’s protégé—asserted that “the findings of the lie detector are as acceptable in court as fingerprint testimony.”

But numerous court rulings have ensured that this won’t be the case. Though the technology of the polygraph has continued to improve and the questioning process has become more systematic and standardized, scientists and legal experts remained divided on the device's efficacy.

A 1998 Supreme Court ruling ​concluded that as long as that’s the case, the risk of false positives is too high. The polygraph test, the court concluded, enjoys a scientific “aura of infallibility,” despite the fact “there is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable,” and ruled that passing the test cannot be seen as proof of innocence. Accordingly, taking the test must remain voluntary, and its results must never be presented as conclusive.

Most importantly: The court left it up to the states to decide whether the test can be presented in court at all. Today, 23 states allow polygraph tests to be admitted as evidence in a trial, and many of those states require the agreement of both parties.

Critics of the polygraph test claim that even in states where the test can't be used as evidence, law enforcers often use it as a tool to ​bully suspects into giving confessions that then can be admitted.

“It does tend to make people frightened, and it does make people confess, even though it cannot detect a lie,” Geoff Bunn, a psychology professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, told The Daily Beast.

But despite criticism—and despite an entire ​industry of former investigators offering to teach individuals how to beat the test—the polygraph is still used ​widely in the United States, mostly in the process of job applications and security checks.

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