If you’ve ever found yourself searching your pocket for your vibrating phone (or pager if you’re old school) only to find the device on your desk or in your purse, two recent studies prove you’re not alone.
Researchers call it “phantom vibration syndrome”, referring to perceived vibrations from a device that isn’t actually vibrating. It’s a relatively recent psychological phenomenon, but a pervasive one. A study of 290 undergraduate college students found 89% had experienced a phantom vibration, averaging about once every two weeks. The good news? Very few of the participants found the perceived vibrations bothersome (although people who were more emotionally invested in text messaging found the phantom vibrations more troubling).
Lest you think this phenomenon is limited to young adults, another study found that medical professionals also fall victim to phantom vibrations. In this study, 68% of the 169 participants reported experiencing phantom vibrations. Most of the medical professionals started experiencing phantom vibrations within one year of getting the device and felt the pseudo-vibrations either weekly or monthly. 14 of the medical professionals (13%) experienced the phenomenon on a daily basis.
So we’ve established it happens (and for some people it happens a lot), but why?
The authors of the study that asked medical professionals about phantom vibration syndrome hypothesize it “may result from a misinterpretation of incoming sensory signals in the cerebral cortex”.
Take a quick glance around you and count the number of sights, smells, sounds, textures, or even tastes available for your consumption. It’s overwhelming, and your brain compensates by filtering the inputs based on what you expect to see, smell, hear, feel or taste. If you’re walking in a park, for example, you might expect to see trees, grass and benches. This time of year you might smell decaying leaves and hear and feel them crunch under your feet. If you happened to see a table lamp it would be out of place. Somewhat similarly, in the case of phantom vibrations, because you’re expecting a call or a message, your brain misinterprets the input and you “feel” the vibration.
The study authors conclude “like new mothers who constantly imagine they hear their babies crying, students and [medical] residents check and recheck their pagers.”
Stopping the Sensation
Some participants in the medical professional study (44%) said they tried to stop the phantom vibrations, with about 28% reporting they were successful. Moving the location of the device (from wearing it on a belt loop to keeping it in a pocket, for example) was the best option in this group, followed closely by switching the device out of vibrate mode (to the chagrin of those within earshot). 14 people went so far as to change devices, but only half of them found that helpful.