Phantom vibration syndrome update: Perceived phone vibrations developed through bodily habit, says expert

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According to a study published by the Georgia Institute of Technology in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, smartphones may cause people to falsely believe they are receiving text messages.

The November 2015 study, “An experiential account of phantom vibration syndrome,” was conducted by Robert Rosenberger, which expounds on an earlier research done by Indiana University and Purdue University.

The Indiana research published in 2012 claimed that smartphone vibrations train people into thinking their cellphones are getting text messages. These phantom vibrations caused 89 percent of the 290 undergraduates in the sample to develop a type of “text-message dependence.” The episodes occurred an average of once every two weeks. The study also revealed that only a few of the undergraduates were actually bothered by the phenomenon and most of the students were not interested in stopping them.

Rosenberger said in a statement, “Through bodily habit, your phone actually becomes a part of you, and you become trained to perceive the phone’s vibrations as an incoming call or text. So, due to these kinds of habits, it becomes really easy to misperceive other similar sensations.”

Contrary to the Indiana study, Rosenberger believes that the phantom vibrations are a result of human nature wanting to obsess about things rather than technology “rewiring the brain.”

Other studies in the past have shown that technological dependence is becoming more widespread in contemporary society. 

Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at the California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Psychology Today, states that the average user checks their phone 150 times per day or every 6.5 minutes. Sixty-two percent of those born in the ’90s, called the iGeneration, check their text messages every 15 minutes or less.

Phantom vibrations seem to be mainly affecting those of the younger generation. David Laramie, a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, believes that because young people grew up with cellphones, their lives are more centered around them.

Sliman Bensmaia, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, thinks these are a result of the brain seeking to fill in the gaps so that mental patterns can be developed. Bensmaia also thinks the “gap-filling” is accomplished through learned association. The clothes rub against a person’s skin, and the rubbing is similar to that of a cell-phone vibrating.

Possible solutions to phantom vibrations include placing one’s cellphone in another location on the body. This way, the device owner can stop monitoring that specific area. Or they can simply stop using the phone’s vibration mode altogether.