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Phantom Phone Vibrations: So Common They've Changed Our Brains?

Sep 27, 2013
Originally published on September 30, 2013 10:09 pm

Phantom vibration — that phenomenon where you think your phone is vibrating but it's not — has been around only since the mobile age. And five years ago, when its wider existence became recognized, news organizations, including ours, covered the "syndrome" as a sign of the digital encroachment in our lives. Today, it's so common that researchers have devoted studies to it.

For Valerie Kusler, who works on a 2,200-acre cattle ranch, the sensation is complicated by the cows. "The cows' moo is very muffled, it kinda sounds like ... errrrrr," she says. "So that's very similar to what my phone sounds like when it vibrates on my desk or in my purse."

If you heard the comparison, you could understand how she gets confused. "Definitely other people have experienced it, too," Kusler says.

Other people may not confuse cows for their phones, but research shows phantom vibration syndrome, or its other nicknames — like hypovibochondria or ring-xiety — are a near-universal experience for people with smartphones.

Nearly 90 percent of college undergrads in a 2012 study said they felt phantom vibrations. The number was just as high for a survey of hospital workers, who reported feeling phantom vibrations on either a weekly or monthly basis.

"Something in your brain is being triggered that's different than what was triggered just a few short years ago," says Dr. Larry Rosen, a research psychologist who studies how technology affects our minds.

"If you'd ask me 10 years ago, or maybe even five years ago if I felt an itch beneath where my pocket of my jeans were, and asked me what I would do, I'd reach down and scratch it because it was probably a little itch caused by the neurons firing," he says.

Now, of course, the tingle triggers him to reach for his phone. Rosen says it's an example of how our devices are changing how our brains process information.

"We're seeing a lot of what looks like compulsive behavior, obsessive behavior. People who are constantly picking up their phone look like they have an obsession. They don't look much different from someone who's constantly washing their hands. I'm not saying that it is an obsession, but I'm saying that it could turn into one, very easily," Rosen says.

While 9 out of 10 participants in the study of college students said the vibration feeling bothered them only a little or not at all, Rosen still recommends backing away from our phones every once in a while to keep our anxiety levels down.

"One of the things I'm really adamant about in spite of being very pro-technology, is just weaning ourselves off of the technology for short periods," Rosen says. "And by short periods, I mean, maybe just 30 minutes or an hour."

That kind of mindfulness is something the Tennessee-based Kusler says she's working on.

"That is a personal goal of mine," she says, "to try and have a better boundary between my life and my phone."

But as long as muffled moos are part of her workday, she has a better excuse than the rest of us for feeling those phantom vibrations.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Here's an experience that maybe you've had with your mobile phone: you could be on a plane or sitting at work...

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Wait, wait. Is that my phone? Let's me just check my pocket here.

BLOCK: But your phone is sitting on the table.

CORNISH: OK. I guess it wasn't buzzing at all.

BLOCK: That feeling that your phone is vibrating when it isn't is called a phantom vibration. And as NPR's Elise Hu reports, phantom vibration syndrome says something about the way we live these days.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: You'd think Valerie Kusler wouldn't be bothered by phantom vibrations. She works an hour away from the bustle of modern life at a rehab and recovery center on a 2,200-acre cattle ranch. But the Nashville-based therapist says she's just as attached to her iPhone as anybody.

VALERIE KUSLER: I am constantly getting emails that are important and urgent about work things and want to stay connected to my family back in Texas. So, I am constantly checking my phone, I will admit.

HU: So, she's felt that phantom sensation of her phone vibrating when it's not. But Kusler's experience is complicated by the cows.

KUSLER: The cows' moo is very muffled. It kind of sounds like "rrrr..."

HU: These are the cows near the ranch where she works:

(SOUNDBITE OF MOOING)

HU: This is an iPhone ringing on vibrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE VIBRATING)

HU: Again, the cows:

(SOUNDBITE OF MOOING)

KUSLER: So, that's very similar to what my phone sounds like when it vibrates on a desk or inside my purse.

HU: You could understand how she gets confused.

KUSLER: Definitely other people have experienced it, too.

HU: Other people may not confuse cows for their phones, but phantom vibration syndrome - or its other nicknames, like hypovibochondria or ring-xiety - is a near universal experience for people with mobile phones.

KRISTEN PETRONIC: I'll just feel it out of nowhere, like my phone is ringing. But then it's nothing.

XAVIER PREW: You know, it kind of tricks you out.

LIZ RILES: Gives me false hope that someone cares about me. (Laughing)

HU: That was Kristen Petronic, Xavier Prew and Liz Riles, who we caught out and about in downtown D.C. This phenomenon is prevalent enough now that in the past five years, researchers started studying it. Nearly 90 percent of college undergrads in one study said they felt phantom vibrations. The number was similar for hospital workers. But even though the phantom vibration phenomenon seems so common, it's still relatively new.

LARRY ROSEN: Something in your brain is being triggered that is different from what was triggered just a few short years ago.

HU: Dr. Larry Rosen is a California research psychologist and author who studies how technology affects our minds.

ROSEN: If you'd asked me 10 years ago or maybe even five years ago, if I felt an itch beneath where my pocket of my jeans were, and asked me what I would do, I would say I would reach down and scratch it because it was probably a little itch caused by the neurons firing.

HU: Now, of course, the tingle triggers him to reach for his phone. Rosen says it's an example of how our devices are changing how our brains process information.

ROSEN: We're seeing a lot of what looks like compulsive behavior, obsessive behavior, people who are constantly picking up their phone look like they have an obsession. They don't look much different than someone who's constantly washing their hands. I'm not saying that it is an obsession but I'm certainly saying that it could turn into one very easily.

HU: Not everyone is so concerned. Nine out of 10 participants in a study of college students said the vibration feeling bothered them only a little or not at all. But Rosen says it would do all of our anxiety levels some good to back away from our phones every once in a while.

ROSEN: One of the things that I'm really adamant about, in spite of being very pro-technology, I believe that we have to all learn how to kind of wean ourselves slowly off of the technology for short periods. And by short periods, I mean maybe just thirty minutes or an hour.

HU: That kind of mindfulness is something Valerie Kusler, the Tennessee-based therapist, says she's working on.

KUSLER: That is kind of a personal goal of mine, is to try to have a better boundary between my life and my phone.

HU: But as long as these sounds...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOOING)

HU: ...are part of her workday, Kusler has a better excuse than the rest of us for feeling those phantom vibrations. Elise Hu...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE VIBRATING)

HU: ...NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.