The Vibrations That Weren’t There

Have you ever heard or felt the vibration of your phone, only to check and see that there are no new notifications or missed calls on your screen?

The chances are that this has probably happened to you. But don’t worry, you’re not the only one.

Six in ten people – more than half of us who own a phone – experience the phenomenon of “phantom vibration syndrome” at least once a month1.

Phantom vibrations – which has also been termed Phantom Phone Signals, Ringxiety, and Fauzellarm (i.e., false alarm) – occur when we think that we hear or feel our phones vibrating, indicating some sort of notification, only to realise that the phone didn’t vibrate at all.

Although most people who experience phantom vibrations aren’t that bothered by them2, the existing small body of research aims to answer fundamental questions about its prevalence among smartphone users.

Associate professor Robert Rosenberger, for instance, explored why phantom vibrations occur in his experiential account of the phenomenon3.

His assessment looked at brain-based explanations and phenomenological accounts from a range of researchers.

TECH + knowledge + Y: What is phantom vibration syndrome? [Georgia Tech]

Brain-based explanations

Work by Rothberg et al.4 notes that the prevalence of phantom vibration syndrome “attests to the fact that normal brain mechanisms are at work.”

This account implies that the actual stimulus for the phantom vibration is unknown and could be attributed to pressure from clothing, muscle contractions, or other sensory stimuli.

When we experience phantom vibrations, the brain mistakes these possible attributions as a phone vibration.

In another brain-based account by Larry Rosen5, phantom vibration syndrome is seen as being, as Rosenberger paraphrases, “part of a larger pattern of technology-related anxiety.”

As our relationship with our phones and other technology grows more intense, so do levels of anxiety. While waiting for an anticipated notification or call, we can become anxious and misrepresent sensory stimuli as a vibration.

This notion is echoed in research by Drouin et al.2 who wrote that “text messaging addiction and phantom vibrations may just be contemporary versions of social sensitivity or social anxiety.”

Phenomenology of phantom vibrations

Being a philosopher, Rosenberger also considered the phenomenology of phantom vibration syndrome by investigating a deeper description of the human experience.

He referred to learned bodily habits which occur over time when we are exposed to certain technologies; in this case, constant exposure to our phones.

To paint the picture of how a bodily habit is formed, Rosenberger borrowed ideas from a range of thinkers who highlight different aspects of phantom vibrations compared to the brain-based explanations.

The embodiment of technology occurs when “a device is taken into the user’s bodily awareness as it is used.” That is to say the increase in phone usage means that we can experience phones as an extension of ourselves. Almost like an extra limb.

The embodiment of our phones in day-to-day life leads to a degree of transparency of the device. Rosenberger notes that, “The phone in our pocket, like the shoes on our feet or the glasses on our face, can become so transparent that it can be almost forgotten.”

In this sense, the phone is identified as a mediator of our perceptions and actions which transforms the way we understand and what we do (in response to the vibration).

Hermeneutic relations refer to “technology usage which requires a user to read off and interpret a device’s readout.” The readout in this case is our interpretation of the perceived vibration which represents an incoming notification.

Finally, Rosenberger adds to the phenomenological framework the notion of sedimentation. This refers to “the way that our past experiences build up (like sediment solidifying into rock) to provide a pre-set context of significance through which our experiences occur.”

When taken together – with a long history of incoming notification vibrations – these phenomenological concepts can lead to a deeply sedimented bodily habit. Our awareness has been shifted from the phone itself to the idea of receiving notifications.

Although the limited research on phantom vibration syndrome ultimately leaves theories related to the empirical data to interpretation, one thing seems certain: the prevalence of phantom vibration syndrome should be a phenomenon worth examining further.

It may not be bothersome to most individuals, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that phantom vibration syndrome could be closely associated with issues in the human-technology experience.

References

  1. Tanis, M. et al., 2015. Phantom phone signals: An investigation into the prevalence and predictors of imagined cell phone signals. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, p.356.
  2. Drouin, M., Kaiser, D.H. & Miller, D.A., 2012. Phantom vibrations among undergraduates: Prevalence and associated psychological characteristics. Computers in human behavior, 28(4), pp.1490–1496.
  3. Rosenberger, R., 2015. An experiential account of phantom vibration syndrome. Computers in Human Behavior, 52, p.124.
  4. Rothberg, M.B. et al., Phantom vibration syndrome among medical staff: a cross sectional survey. BMJ, 341(7786), pp.1292–1293.
  5. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/rewired-the-psychology-technology/201305/phantom-pocket-vibration-syndrome