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

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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. 

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NASA Has a Plan to Stop the Next Asteroid That Threatens Life on Earth
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An asteroid colliding catastrophically with Earth within your lifetime is unlikely, but not out of the question. According to NASA, objects large enough to threaten civilization hit the planet once every few million years or so. Fortunately, NASA has a plan for dealing with the next big one when it does arrive, Forbes reports.

According to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan [PDF] released by the White House on June 21, there are a few ways to handle an asteroid. The first is using a gravity tractor to pull it from its collision course. It may sound like something out of science fiction, but a gravity tractor would simply be a large spacecraft flying beside the asteroid and using its gravitational pull to nudge it one way or the other.

Another option would be to fly the spacecraft straight into the asteroid: The impact would hopefully be enough to alter the object's speed and trajectory. And if the asteroid is too massive to be stopped by a spacecraft, the final option is to go nuclear. A vehicle carrying a nuclear device would be launched at the space rock with the goal of either sending it in a different direction or breaking it up into smaller pieces.

Around 2021, NASA will test its plan to deflect an asteroid using a spacecraft, but even the most foolproof defense strategy will be worthless if we don’t see the asteroid coming. For that reason, the U.S. government will also be working on improving Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, the technology NASA uses to track asteroids. About 1500 NEOs are already detected each year, and thankfully, most of them go completely unnoticed by the public.

[h/t Forbes]

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

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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