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.
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.
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).