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Technology, The Mind

The curious case of the phantom vibrating phone

Smartphone in your pocketI’ve only been back in the UK a matter of hours and it’s already started. After a few days abroad, I am taking a stroll through the beauty of Wiltshire’s county town to remind myself how good it is to be back in good ol’ Blighty. And then suddenly – and without warning – my reverie is broken by a vibrating right thigh. It is the tell-tale buzz of my mobile phone, which has now awoken from its vacation slumber. A text message or twitter update perhaps? Neither, as it happens. For when I have prised my phone out from my (now slightly tighter) jeans pocket, I see that the screen is blank. No message, no twitter update and no new email – nichts, nada… nobody loves me today. And yet the sensation was unmistakably real. But, I am not going mad; for this, dear reader, is another case of the ‘phantom phone vibration’.

If you own a mobile phone and carry it with you every day (which is most of us) then you may be familiar with phantom phone vibrations. It is a surprisingly common phenomenon with some surveys reporting that it occurs in over 90% of mobile users. Some say that these feelings should be called ‘hallucinations’ – sensations are believed to be real but are not – but others disagree. More recently, psychologists have been saying that such imaginary phones are simply a normal reaction to a life in sync with a silicon companion.

Such sensory trickery may seem worrying but it probably wouldn’t trouble any woman who has nursed a newborn. For in a baby’s first months, a mother’s senses become highly attuned to the cry of her child; making it is perfectly normal for a sleep-deprived mum to jump at the sound of screeching car brakes, mistakenly hearing it as a baby’s cry. Similarly, our upper thighs or breast pocket zones have now become highly sensitised to the trill of a phone – and like bleary-eyed parents, our hyper-vigilant senses will easily mistake the rub of trouser fabric for a buzzing mobile.

While it is preposterous to think of technology as being like a baby, in many ways we can act like mobile phones are family members. Surveys of smartphone users show that it is quite normal to check a phone over 100 times a day while most adults typically keep their phone near them 22 hours a day. Furthermore, many of us use our smartphone’s apps, games and social media connectivity to change the way we feel – using it for a lift when bored or to calm down when stressed.

Whether our intimacy with portable technology concerns you, phantom vibrations aren’t anything to fear. They aren’t dangerous and most people aren’t bothered by them. But should they cause upset then there are easy solutions to stop them. By simply changing where you keep your phone (or leaving it in your bag) you will quickly retrain your senses back to normality. Or completely disabling your phone’s vibrate setting will also have a similar effect.

Personally, I prefer the option of putting my phone into ‘respite care’ as often as possible. This usually involves leaving it in the charger for a day or so – or finding somewhere with no reception to ‘accidentally’ put it. Because after all, if our mobile is a part of the family, then it needs a holiday too.

Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.


Photo Credit: twicepix via Compfight cc

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

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