It happens to me maybe once or twice a month. Just the other morning I was in the elevator with my bike, riding up to our third-floor office. I felt a vibration in my pocket and reached for my phone. It wasn’t there. It was in my messenger bag, I quickly remembered as I tried to act casual.
I’m not alone in this experience. A handful of studies in recent years have examined the prevalence of phantom cellphone vibrations, and they’ve come up with impressive numbers, from 68 percent of the medical staff at a Massachusetts hospital to 89 percent of undergraduates at a midwestern university, to more than 90 percent of Taiwanese doctors-in-training in the middle of their internships.
In 2012, the Macquarie Dictionary, the authoritative source of Australian English, chose “phantom vibration syndrome” as its “Word of the Year.” (In what presumably was a coincidence, the readers choice award that year went to “First World problem.”)
OK, so it’s not among the most pressing issues of our day (indeed, the vast majority of people surveyed describe the sensation as not at all bothersome at all, or only a little bit bothersome). But it’s an intriguing phenomenon. Healthy people don’t often hallucinate. But lots of healthy people experience this particular hallucination. What could be causing it?
Hallucination may not be the most appropriate term, according to Laramie. “You’re misinterpreting something, but there is this external cue. You’re not totally making it up.” A compelling alternative, he suggests, is pareidolia. “That’s the phenomenon where you see a face in the clouds or hear ‘Paul is dead’ when you listen to the Beatles backwards.” (Or see the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich). Essentially, it’s your brain getting a little bit carried away with its normally very useful talent for finding patterns in the world around you.
Laramie was inspired to study phantom phone phenomena by his own experience with phantom ringing. “Back then I had a certain ring that involved a pitch that was akin to sounds I bumped into in my life all the time,” he said. When he changed his ringtone, the phantom ringing stopped.
In his thesis research, he found the two biggest predictors of phantom vibrations and ringing were age (young people experienced them more) and the extent to which people relied on their phone to regulate their emotional state—checking their phone when they wanted to calm down, for example, or get an emotional boost. “My hunch is at this point it’s a generational thing,” Laramie said. Twenty- and thirty-somethings who grew up with cellphones and have them ingrained in their daily lives probably experience the effect more than older people or technophobes, he says.