Have you ever felt like your mobile phone is ringing or vibrating, and you pull it out to see there is no reason for it? In this day and age where our daily lives are closely connected with our mobile phones, it becomes nearly impossible to live without one. Mobile phones are the base of communication technology.
We receive calls, texts, emails on our phones, and this is just the basic functions. With the growing influence of technology and the internet, there have emerged millions of apps and softwares, and ‘social media’.
What is Phantom Vibration Syndrome?
It is a modern-day psychological phenomenon, where people think their mobile phone is ringing or vibrating even when its not. Our growing dependence on mobile phones and the fear of missing out (FOMO) is a great contributing factor to this phenomenon. People have become so concerned about missing a call or text that they become excessively aware of minute sensations, and assume they are vibrations and a call or text is incoming. Detecting a phone call or text has become habitual in modern man, and the slightest twitch or feeling of clothing could be wrongly interpreted as a phone vibration (Robert Rosenberger, PhD).
Phantom Vibration Syndrome was formerly called ringxiety and is described as an annoying feeling of mistakenly thinking of hearing a mobile phone ring. It is an experience that most of us have been guilty of at some point, take for instance; two or more people are standing close to each other and a mobile phone suddenly starts ringing. Instantly everyone starts frantically searching their pockets and bags in anxious belief that it must be theirs.
Through habit formation, technology becomes a portion of you
People who have become excessively familiar with vibrations and mobile phones form a bodily habit, leading to their phones becoming a part of them. These people became trained to recognise the phone’s vibrations as incoming call or text, that makes it clear for them to discern slight sensations and misinterpret them.
A lot of times, individuals find the phantom messages or vibrations manageable. Rather than technology dependency “rewiring the brain”, the tendency to check phones comes from the basic human nature to obsess over things. (Computers in Human Behaviour)
Although it is termed as a “syndrome”, we must understand that Phantom Vibration Syndrome is not a disease or disorder but it is more of a “normal phenomenon” which involves misinterpretation of stimuli.
The Role of Stress in Phantom Vibration Syndrome (PVS)
Stress, to some extent plays a role in the phenomenon of phantom sensations. Studies show that individuals with severe phantom vibrations had higher somatic anxiety (physical manifestation of anxiety) and somatic depressive scores. However, a majority of individuals found the experience of phantom vibrations “slightly” or “not at all” bothersome. (Rothberg el al)
Work-related burnout was found to be associated with these phantom sensations. This makes phantom vibrations a predictor of occupational burnout. In the case of young adults, they use mobile phones as a means to cope with stressful experiences by increasing the time spent on mobile phones, since it offers several advantages such as portability, accessibility and privacy. However, constant use of this coping strategy is not beneficial in the long run, as it can lead to adverse mental health.
Increased stress levels and excessive smartphone usage have been found to be associated with higher phantom vibration sensations.
There are several possible explanations for this phenomenon: increased use of smartphones arise from needs like productivity enhancement, information-seeking, social information, interaction, leisure and relaxation, entertainment, and so on. Individuals have become reliant on messages, calls, alerts to manage their personal, professional, and social relationships, and hence in the likelihood of receiving more messages, they keep their smartphones in vibration mode to be alerted of those messages, and thus develop heightened sensitivity to mobile phone vibrations due to repeated exposure.
Higher smartphone use is considered a risk factor for developing anxiety, stress, and depression, leading to heightened sensitivity and misinterpretation of stimuli or sensations. Anxiety levels are higher in such cases because the person is always in a state of mind that someone is calling, texting, e-mailing, or sending files over the internet. Another contributing factor is the fact that people store their private data in their mobile phones. Anxiety levels rise because the person is constantly worried of losing important data from the phone or someone stealing private data.
What goes on inside the brain during phantom vibrations or phantom ringing?
When a mobile phone is inside the pocket, there are two possible states: the phone is either ringing or not. The brain also has two possible states: the judgement that the phone is ringing, and the judgement that it isn’t. The brain tends to match these states correctly i.e., true vibrations should go with “it’s ringing” and no vibrations go with “it’s not ringing”. But there are also other possible combinations : the brain could mismatch true vibrations with “it’s not ringing” (missed), or mismatch the absence of vibrations with “it’s ringing” (false alarm). The second kind of mismatch leads to the phantom vibrations. (Signal Detection Theory)
The phantom sensations are a result of repetitive memories of previous real experiences that may have been triggered in present situations. (Dr. Larry Rosen)
Phantom vibrations and ringing may be due the brain’s ability to form new connections in response to changes in the environment. When smartphone users regularly experience sensations or vibrations when their phones are ringing, their brains become wired to those sensations. (Theory of Neuroplasticity)
Technology is certainly a wonderful thing, but becoming reliant on it can have a negative impact on us. Smartphone users who are constantly connected to their work are more likely to experience anxiety. A great way to break the habit of constantly checking and rechecking our phones for messages and calls, is to simply step away from it. We can take small steps like limiting smartphone usage for about a half hour each day.
Taking the time to separate from our hand-held devices is known to reduce anxiety levels. Recently, influencers and content creators on social media have popularized this with #DigitalDetox or #Socialmediadetox and it has rendered amazing results. The experience of phantom vibrations does not indicate mental maladjustment, but it can be considered as a sign of problematic phone usage and possibly clinically high levels of stress.