Pretty much everyone who uses a phone that vibrates has experienced a phantom vibration or ten thousand – why do they happen? There have been a few theories over the years, but now a team of researchers from Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne have taken the time to write a paper on it, which the good folks at The Atlantic have been kind enough to summarize the paper in 11 points – personally, I found 1-3 and 7 to be the most enlightening.
1. Many, many people experience phantom vibrations. 89 percent of the undergrad participants in this current study had felt phantom vibrations. In the two other studies on this in the literature — a 2007 doctoral thesis, which surveyed the general population, and a 2010 survey of staff at a Massachusetts hospital — majorities of participants experienced phantom vibrations.
2. They happen pretty often. The survey of undergrads and medical professionals agree: about ten percent experience phantom vibrations every day. 88 percent of the doctors, specifically, felt vibrations between a weekly and monthly basis.
3. If you use your phone more, you’re more likely to feel phantom vibrations. The 2007 graduate study found that people who heard phantom rings roughly used twice as many minutes and sent five times as many texts as those who didn’t.
7. If you react strongly and emotionally to texts, you’re more likely to experience phantom vibrations. Droulin’s study found that a strong emotional reaction predicted how bothersome one finds phantom vibrations. Emotional reactions to texts have been researched before: in a 2008 study of Japanese high school students, it was found to be a key factor in text message dependence.
I used to experience phantom vibrations on an almost daily basis. Now that my phone battery is in need of replacing and my phone is off more often than it is on, they occur much less frequently – but I still get them.
Personally, I don’t think that the sensation is totally imagined – people are mistaking some other sensation for a phone vibration. It is probably something as simple as fabric rubbing over hair follicles or the vibration generated by the friction between a trouser leg and a shoe that is generating some sort of conditioned response in our reptilian brain. The more stressed out about work people are, the more they expect the phone to vibrate – and the more likely they are to misinterpret other vibrations as phone vibrations.
Point 11 indicated that doctors were not sure whether the experience of phantom phone vibrations was a disease:
11. Scientists don’t seem to know whether this is a disease. The 2010 survey goes out of its way to declare “phantom text syndrome” a “Holy Roman Empire” involving neither phantoms nor syndromes. The newer study, though, classifies the perception of a vibration without the sensation of it a hallucination, and undertones, “typically hallucinations are associated with pathology.” The study’s authors wonder aloud if the doctors and nurses at the hospital were more eager to train themselves out of phantom vibrations because they worried about disease and abnormal symptoms, or because they were just old. And throughout the rest of literature, scientists have protested recently that aural hallucinations aren’t a big deal, that they’re not associated with a disease. The 2012 survey’s authors compare phantom vibrations with hearing your name called when it wasn’t.
I am not a psychiatrist but I would say that it would be rather difficult to ascertain whether a person is experiencing a tactile hallucination. The simplest explanation would probably be that we have learned to pay attention to sensations that we used to ignore. I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the vast majority of the people who experience phantom vibrations on a daily basis would not experience them in a sensory deprivation environment. I never felt a phantom vibration in a bathtub or under the shower or while lying in bed. In the past I have experienced them more often when I was under stress at work, when I was working for a business that often contacted me at home, or when I was expecting a phone call or text. In my decidedly non-humble opinion, if we turn down the volume on our various work- and social-life-related neuroses – we will experience fewer phantom vibrations. [Source; Image]