Phantom Smartphone Vibrations

Original author: Greg Miller
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Surely many of us have experienced this. Infrequently, once or twice a month. Maybe someone more often. You are going somewhere or going, and suddenly you feel a familiar vibration in your pocket. You reach for your smartphone with your usual movement, but ... it doesn’t appear there. And you suddenly remember that you put it in a bag, or in a backpack, or did not take it with you at all.

You are far from alone. Over the past years, a number of studies have been conducted on the spread of such a phenomenon as phantom smartphone vibrations. For example, one study found that 68% of the medical staff at the Massachusetts Hospital experienced this phenomenon . According to another study, 89% of students experienced phantom smartphone vibrationsone of the universities of the Midwest. Another study revealed the presence of this phenomenon among more than 90% of Taiwanese medical practitioners during an internship. What is the nature of phantom smartphone vibrations, and should we worry about this?


This is a rather unusual and strange phenomenon in terms of psychology and physiology. If a person experiences such sensations, then this indicates his excessive psychological connection with his smartphone, according to David Laramie, a clinical psychologist. In 2007, Laramie published a doctoral dissertation on the relationship between people and their mobile phones. This was the first serious study of the prevalence of phantom smartphone vibrations and phantom calls. It turned out that two-thirds of the people participating in the study faced this or that phenomenon.

In 2012, Macquarie Dictionary, an authoritative publication in Australian English, selected “phantom smartphone vibrations” as the Word of the Year .

Of course, the feeling of phantom vibrations or calls is not among the most unpleasant or annoying phenomena. The vast majority of people surveyed either do not characterize this with the term “harassing,” or “barely harassing." But in itself this is a rather curious phenomenon. Indeed, you must admit that healthy people are not characterized by hallucinations, but here we are talking about the mass phenomenon of a very specific type of hallucination. What could be the reason for this?

True, the term "hallucination" may not be entirely true in this case. According to Laramie, this is an erroneous, false sensation of the activity of a real object, but we did not invent the object itself and the false-sensed activity of it. As another definition, he proposes the term pareidolia. This is akin to the same phenomenon when you see a ghostly face in the clouds, or the image of the Virgin Mary on a fried toast .

The basis of paradydolic illusions is the excessive "diligence" of our brain in the use of the ability to detect patterns and structures in the environment that is very useful in everyday life.

Inspired by the results of the study, Laramie conducted a series of experiments on the study of phantom calls. “At that time I had a ringtone, a characteristic feature of which was the presence of a number of sounds similar to those that I often encountered in everyday life. “As soon as I changed the ringtone, I stopped hearing phantom calls.”

Through his research, Laramie discovered two main factors by which one can predict the sensation of phantom vibrations and calls. This is age (young people often experience these feelings) and how much people rely on their smartphones to try to balance their emotional state . For example, checking a smartphone when they want to calm down or cheer up. Laramie suggested that this is the main source of these para-idol illusions - vibration and ringing. Most often, this manifests itself in 20- and 30-year-olds, who grew up “with smartphones in their hands”, in contrast to older people and technophobes.


When the illusion of phantom vibrations arises, not only psychological, but also physiological mechanisms are involved. Our skin contains two types of receptors that allow you to feel the vibration. These are Meissner's tactile bodies, “specializing” in slow vibrations, and Pacini's bodies, which are responsible for determining high-frequency vibrations. Most smartphones vibrate at a frequency of 130-180 Hz, which falls precisely on the range between the sensitivity peaks of these two types of receptors. This is probably why smartphones use both types with their vibrating alert, but still more than Pacini's body.
Neurobiologist Sliman Bensmaia from the University of Chicago also believes that phantom vibrations are the result of our brain's desire to detect familiar patterns and patterns. As an analogy, he gives an example when we almost see the outlines of furniture at home in almost complete darkness. Or the ability to see the Dalmatians in this black and white picture .

According to Bensmaya, when clothes rub on our skin, this can cause a similar irritation to vibration receptors, as when the phone vibrates. This becomes the trigger for the brain, which actively "completes" the picture of what is happening and "recognizes" the vibration of the gadget. It is not known which section of the brain is responsible for this illusion, but it is possible that the primary somatosensory cortex and other high-level layers that process tactile sensations are involved here.

If this explanation is correct, then we should feel phantom vibrations only in the area of ​​those areas of the body where we usually carry the phone. Also, the illusion of vibration should not arise if a person is naked. Larami said that two of the respondents often feel phantom vibrations when they wear velvet pants, which fits well with the theory of complementing the tactile sensations with the brain, especially if tissue irregularities glide on the skin with a frequency similar to a vibrating alert. If a velveteen has 5.51 grooves per linear centimeter, if the fabric rubs against the skin at a speed of 25 cm / s, for example, if you are running or walking fast, then friction with a frequency of about 140 Hz is obtained.

In the event that you belong to those 5-10% of people who are annoyed by phantom vibrations, then there is a way to easily reduce or completely get rid of them. Turn off the vibrating alert or put the phone in another place, and your brain will quickly cease to expect vibration in the "old" place. And in no case do not wear corduroy pants.

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