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Why do we feel phantom vibrations from our phones?

Why do we feel phantom vibrations from our phones? Good Question.
Why do we feel phantom vibrations from our phones? Good Question. 02:37

MINNEAPOLIS — Several times a day we turn to our phones expecting a notification, but nothing is there.

Maybe you felt it buzz. Maybe you didn't.

Why do we feel phantom vibrations from our phones? It's not all in our heads, but our bodies.

When asked how much she feels a phantom vibration, Paige Dahlberg said "I would say like multiple times a day." 

"If it happens three times a day, I'll be like 'What is going on?' and I'll take my [Apple] watch off for a minute," added her friend Lacey Sullivan.

"Some people can feel the vibration when their phone is in their purse. They think they hear or see their phone alert going off when it's not even on their person," said Dr. Michelle Drouin, a psychology professor who has studied this phenomenon at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

"Phantom vibration syndrome is when you think that your phone is making an alert, a vibration, a sound, and you go to check it and actually there wasn't anything. So, what it technically is, is a hallucination," said Dr. Drouin.

There are a couple of reasons people think they feel a vibration, with the first being anticipation. We might be anxious about a potential incoming message, call, or email. "Maybe you're expecting something so you're like thinking it's coming, so then it vibrates," said Dahlberg.

Then, actual physical touch can occur.

"Maybe your pant leg rubbed against you or you bumped into something," said Drouin. 

Professor Paul Schrater teaches psychology and computer science at the University of Minnesota. He believes something is happening beneath the surface of our skin.

"For instance, you can have a muscle spasm. Our muscles are always active and when your muscles get active, they're sensed by these sensors within our skin and within our muscles," he said. "The sensors that pick up buzzing are a distinctive category of the sensors in our skin. They don't localize things well and they really don't pick up a lot of details of the stimulation." That means it's easy to mistake the buzz of a muscle twitch as a phone vibration.

But rather than acknowledge the never-ending movements our muscles make, Schrater said we ignore them or associate them with our phones.

"[Phones] are incredibly important to us, addictive you know. But it's also one of the most frequent things in our environment and our brain uses importance and frequency to disambiguate ambiguous signals," he said. There's no denying the attachment people have to their phones and devices in modern society.

"My watch vibrates probably seven to eight times an hour at least. So, if it goes like 30 minutes without vibrating I think that's weird," said Dahlberg.

"It's almost the expectation of our culture that you're going to be responsive 24/7," said Dr. Drouin.

Sullivan said she does not know if the phantom vibrations would stop for people if they simply turned off vibration in their settings.

"I've had [my Apple Watch] on for so long that it would be different to go completely silent or mute," she said.

It's a move Dr. Drouin tried ten years ago, not long after she did her study on phantom vibrations. "I think switching it off vibrate mode is the reason why I haven't had a phantom vibration," she said. "I'm not expecting them and so I'm not looking for them."

In Dr. Drouin's study, the vast majority of her participants said they've experienced phantom vibrations. However, it didn't annoy them. Medical students were found to experience phantom vibrations as well from wearing pagers, Drouin added.

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