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What is Phantom Vibration Syndrome?

While staying connected with friends and family is healthy, many people take social connectivity to an extreme. This has lead to Canadian social scientists coining the term “hyperconnectivity.” This refers to humans utilizing multiple modalities of communication such as: email, instant messaging, face-to-face communication, Facebook, texting, and cell phones.

It is estimated that for every 100 people in the world, 96 of those individuals own cell phones. In some countries, it’s the norm for people to own and use multiple cell phones. While the number of cell phones in the world doesn’t exceed the total Earth’s population, it’s getting close; there are nearly 7 billion people on Earth, and nearly 6.8 billion cell phones.

Technology, regular cell phone usage, and constant access have rewired the brains of most. Nearly everyone is constantly checking their phone for the latest Facebook update, text message, app update, or even just browsing the web for news. Most people have inadvertently become dependent upon cell phones to navigate the world.

What is Phantom Vibration Syndrome?

The increasing usage of cell phones has lead some individuals to experience a phenomenon known as “phantom vibration syndrome.” The syndrome known as “phantom vibration” is characterized by an individual falsely perceiving that their cell phone is either vibrating or ringing at a time when it clearly isn’t. Those that experience phantom vibration syndrome may be engaging in an activity away from their cell phone, yet believe that it’s ringing.

In other cases people may believe that their cell phone is vibrating in their pocket, when it isn’t.  The phone may be completely off or display no activity, yet the person perceiving the vibration believes with full conviction that they felt their phone vibrating.  It’s almost as if their mind (and phone) are playing tricks on them.

The term is believed to have originated from the “Dilbert” comic strip (1996) in which “phantom pager syndrome” was referenced. This condition didn’t gain much attention in the media until the early 2000s. Those that have written about the condition have questioned as to whether it’s a result of cumulative nerve damage, unfavorable brain chemistry alterations, or simply a harmless sign of technology dependence.

It is likely that those exposed to sensitive tones or vibrations on a consistent basis, regardless of the source, may have experienced variations of this condition long before cell phones. Many people have likely experienced this same condition with standardized landline phones and certain electronic devices.

Various related terms for this condition include:

  • Ringxiety: Is a term representing anxiety associated to the ringing (or lack thereof) of a cell phone.
  • Hypovibochondria: This is a blended term combining the psychological condition of hypochondria and vibration (vibro).
  • Fauxcellarm: This creative term combining “faux” (fake) and “cell” (for cell phone) with the pronunciation similar to that of “false alarm.”

What causes phantom vibration syndrome?

There are numerous hypotheses regarding the specific cause of phantom vibration syndrome. Many believe that the brain becomes so conditioned to hearing frequent rings or vibrations, that the same neural pathways activated when it actually is ringing falsely burst with activity even when it isn’t. Individuals with phantom vibration syndrome are so accustomed to hearing their phone vibrate or ring, that their brain expects more.

Factors influencing phantom vibration syndrome…

In part there are likely several factors that play a role in influencing this phenomenon known as “phantom vibration.” These factors include: average number of vibrations/rings, volume, sound frequency, time span over which a person has been conditioned, as well as individual brain chemistry.

1. Avg. daily vibrations/rings

If your phone doesn’t ring or vibrate, your brain isn’t going to expect it to ring or vibrate. While this isn’t confirmed, it would make sense that the greater number of daily vibrations and/or rings a person is exposed to, the more likely they are going to perceive phantom vibrations. Just think about it, playing a song on repeat for hours will probably leave the song stuck in your head.

It may be difficult for you to get the song out of your head because your brain had begun to expect the song. When the song stops, the neural loop keeps firing, and you keep hearing it in a slightly different way. Even though the reverberations aren’t hitting your ear drum, your brain is still firing. Those with phones that are frequently ringing (from calls) or vibrating (from notifications) are more likely to experience this phenomenon.

2. Cumulative cell phone usage

It should also be speculated that the number of years over which a person consistently uses their phone with ringing and/or vibrations may also play influence this condition. In previous generations, this was highly unlikely to occur due to the fact that most people didn’t have cell phones, and those that did, rarely used them. The newer generations (e.g. “Y” and “Z”) don’t even know what it’s like to function without them. Using cell phones over a longer term may increase the likelihood that you’ll experience phantom rings.

3. Brain chemistry

It is important to consider the individual in regards to experiencing phantom vibes or rings. Genetics, neural activation, and neurotransmitters are all likely to increase a person’s susceptibility to experiencing this phenomenon. Some experts believe that the condition is related to psychological anxiety and that those with an anxious predisposition may be more likely to experience the phantom vibes.

Some people have used their cell phones for decades and haven’t experienced a phantom vibration, yet others who have only used their phones for a short-term have experienced these. This is why individual neurochemistry is likely among the most influential factors. While you probably won’t experience this phenomenon without owning a cell phone, it may be more likely in certain individuals over others due to brain chemistry.

4. Vibration or Sound Frequency

It is known that humans have sensitivities to certain sound frequencies. Most cell phones elicit tones for rings or vibrations within the range of 1000 Hz to 6000 Hz – the exact frequencies that tend to shock the auditory system. When we blast our cell phone ringers and vibrations, get frequent notifications or calls, and this occurs often – we are essentially jolting our auditory cortex to sensitive frequencies.

It is known that the frequencies within this range tend to be difficult to pinpoint during spatial navigation. This is why when many people hear a cell phone ringing or vibrating, they have a tough time pinpointing its specific location. Although being unable to pinpoint the location isn’t that big of a deal, the sensitivity to these frequencies may leave a conditioned neural imprint – priming our brains for a sensitive sound.

5. Skin receptors

A majority of cell phones are thought to vibrate between the frequencies of 130 Hz and 180 Hz. Each time your phone vibrates in your pocket, you feel the vibration on your skin, which contains receptors that send your brain signals that there’s an alert on your phone. The particular receptors that process this sensation are referred to as the “Pacinian corpuscles.”

It is these same receptors that become activated when clothes brush up against the skin. When a phone vibrates in your pocket, it is likely that the same skin receptors are activated. Some experts believe that since your phone is vibrating and setting off activity in the same skin receptors as the ones which brushing clothes activate, your brain can wire to falsely perceive a vibrating phone, even when it’s just clothes brushing up against your skin.

In other words, the stimuli of the clothes and phone become intertwined, leaving your brain to (sometimes) associate one with both. This likely occurs within the primary somatosenxory cortex, paired with areas which process tactile sensations (for false pocket vibrations).

When does the phantom ringing or vibrating occur?

There’s no particular time when the phantom ringing or vibrating is most likely to occur. It is likely subject to significant individual variation. Some have experienced the phantom ringing when watching TV or while doing something relaxing like taking a shower. It is speculated that after using the cell phone for prolonged periods, when a person attempts to take a break, their brain is so accustomed to hearing the “rings” and/or “vibrations,” that it falsely perceives them – hence their description as phantoms.

Other people may experience them when using a noisy device or in a noisy environment. In this case, the brain may be subconsciously primed to expect a cell phone beep. Although no beep actually occurs, since the neural correlates are primed, they may simply go off in similar regions to when the phone actually beeps. People become so desensitized to their cell phones, that using them frequently on a daily basis trains their brain to expect them.

Think of it like a gun that is loaded (neural pathways are primed after hearing the cell phone) being stored in a car during a bumpy ride. Although nobody is attempting to pull the trigger, you hit a bump in the road (something nudges the primed neural pathways) and boom, the gun goes off (neurons fire so that you hear a vibration or ringing from the phone – even though it’s not coming from the phone.

Yet others that experience the phantom pocket vibrations may be more likely to experience them when they wear certain clothes (e.g. tight pants). If the theory that the skin receptors tie the stimuli of certain clothes, with a vibrating cell phone, it makes sense that tight clothes may trigger the false vibrations because the skin receptors become bombarded with pressure.

How to reduce, prevent, or overcome phantom vibrations or rings

If you want the phantom vibes or rings to stop, it’s common sense what needs to be done: either turn the sound and vibrations off or avoid using your cell phone. In fact, you could even consider doing both – fasting from cell phone usage for some days and the days that you use your cell phone, keep it on silent.

1. Cell phone fast

Clearly this phenomenon never existed in the past because we didn’t have cell phones and those that did, didn’t use them as much. These days nearly everyone and their kids are glued to their cell phones, sometimes unable to interact with society because they are so caught up living in a hyperconnected form of cyberspace on their phone. To avoid, prevent, or overcome the phantom vibes, try scaling back on cell phone usage or “fasting” from your phone.

  • Hours per day: For those who want to do the bare minimum, try fasting from your phone for several hours per day and determine whether it reduces the occurrence.
  • Entire day: Many people force themselves to go one full day per week without their cell phones. This helps train the brain to become less dependent upon technology and makes it less likely that you’ll experience phantom vibrations.
  • Multiple days: For those that are a bit more extreme, you may want to take a multiple day cell phone fast per week. Go for a couple days per week with no phone – it should help reduce the phantom vibrations.

2. Turn off the ringer/vibration

A less extreme approach than giving up your cell phone for hours per day or days per week is to simply turn off your ringer and/or vibration. If your brain isn’t constantly bombarded with rings and vibrations from your cell phone, you’re probably not going to experience phantom vibrations. Many people are so dependent on their phones, that no matter the activity they’re doing, they’ll stop for any alert in the form of a beep, buzz, or ring.

Turning off the ringer and vibration completely is a good strategy. Not only will you reduce the likelihood of phantom vibration syndrome, but you’ll also be able to check for notifications on your own terms. Often times we perceive the ring or vibration as being top-priority like an emergency, despite the fact that they are general notifications.

3. Airplane mode

If your phone is on airplane mode, it’s not going to randomly ring or vibrate. Additionally, having your phone on airplane mode more often may reduce the likelihood that you’ll develop health problems stemming from RF-EMF (radio-frequency electromagnetic field) radiation. There is some evidence that the radiation from cell phones is linked to brain tumors – particularly “glioma.”

While the likelihood that you’ll develop a tumor from cell phones is low, there is a clear association. Airplane mode allows us to have our phone with us in case there’s an emergency and usage is necessary, but doesn’t bombard our brain with constant notifications in the form of sound and vibrations.

4. Reduce the volume

If you don’t want to shut off the ring or vibration, consider turning off one or the other. If you’re having a problem with phantom rings, turn off the ring. If you’re having a problem with vibrations, turn off the vibrations. Those who aren’t willing to turn off the ringer, could compromise by reducing the volume.

Many people have their phones jacked up to the maximum volume, and the frequency of the notification ringer is within the sensitive range. This is like training your brain to perceive cell phone notifications as being more important than anything. Adjust the volume to an appropriate range or consider altering and/or decreasing the style of vibration.

5. Clothing alterations

Some people have reported experiencing phantom pocket vibrations – a specific subtype of phantom vibration syndrome. These individuals often find that when they wear certain clothing, particularly restrictive pants, that they experience an increase in the number of phantom vibes. This may be due to the fact that the brushing of clothes against your skin stimulates the same sensory receptors as the vibrating phone.

Your brain comes to associate the contact of these tighter clothes (typically pants) with the vibrating phone. Even when the phone isn’t vibrating, the restrictive clothing primes the skin receptors, which stimulates a particular neural pathway to elicit the phantom vibration. You may find that adjusting your clothes to looser fitting pants alleviates the problem.

6. Adjust carrying strategies

Another obvious tip for those who experience phantom pocket vibrations is to adjust the carrying strategy. In other words, if you are carrying your phone in your pocket, try carrying it for awhile in your backpack or in your hand. Don’t store your phone in a pocket that allows the vibration to stimulate your skin receptors. If you have other pockets such as in a sweatshirt or jacket, store your phone there and make sure that the phone doesn’t come in contact with the skin.

How common is phantom vibration syndrome?

It appears as though this emerging phenomenon is relatively common, especially among individuals that frequently use their cell phones. Research psychologist Dr. Michelle Drouin discovered that nearly 90% of college undergraduates at IUPU (Indiana University-Purdue University) experienced phantom vibrations about once every couple weeks. It was discovered that most of the students weren’t that upset by them – only about 10% of students thought they were a nuisance.

Have you experienced phantom vibration syndrome?

If you’ve experienced phantom vibrations or rings from your cell phone, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below. Mention whether you found these phantom sensations bothersome and how frequently you’ve experienced them. Also feel free to mention what you believe caused your brain to falsely perceive the ring or vibration, even when it didn’t occur.

While many people have experienced phantom vibrations/rings, most people don’t know that they are relatively common and overall pretty harmless. But they might be a sign that you have become a little too dependent on your cell phone. To decrease the likelihood that you’ll experience these, simply turn off the ring/vibration alerts on your phone, and spend more time away from technology.

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5 thoughts on “What is Phantom Vibration Syndrome?”

  1. I personally experience phantom vibration during any hour of the day. It is normally when I am expecting or hoping for a text message. I have a hypothesis, but let me preface this with stating that I am not any way trained in medicine or psychology. I believe that, in some cases, certain chemicals of pleasure fire in the brain (dopamine I believe) when one receives a text message.

    When this person is bored or is wanting a “dopamine-rush,” their brain creates a false vibration in the appropriate spot of the body. I’ve noticed that I feel the vibration where it should be (on my arm if my phone is on the table, stomach if it is in my coat pocket, etc.). But, again, I am in no way qualified to answer this question with any sort of validity. Just thought I’d throw my hat into the ring.

  2. It happens to me & my S/O. It often happened to me at work, standing behind the counter when I didn’t even have my phone in my pocket.

  3. I have been experiencing it lately. Mine is more of the vibration illusion in my pocket. After reading this article, I came to realize that it may be attributed to the tight pants that I’m wearing, combined with the over-all jumpsuit I wear at my work. This combination puts pressure on my upper leg where my phone was always secured. As recommended from this article, I will try to turn-off the Vibration alert and also change the phone location.

  4. For the last two years I have been woken up by a sound similar to a single cell phone vibration. It varies in volume. Could this be phantom vibrations? I recently noticed that when I power off my iPad and iPhone I don’t hear it. When my devices were on in the past, they were in sleep mode, with the volume off and in different rooms.

  5. I experience these phantom vibrations very often. Usually many times a day. I do find them very annoying because it causes me to check my phone for a notification that does not exist. It happens when I have loud music on, when I’m watching a movie, or just simply doing school work.


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