A few months ago, I decided to give up on text message alerts. Not because I wasn’t interested in replying, but because I couldn’t handle having my phone vibrate at random. I had started experiencing “phantom vibrations,” the false sensation that your phone is vibrating. Unwilling to deal with constant pinging ringtones, and filled with disappointment and embarrassment every time I reached into my pocket to find that my brain had invented the sensation of a vibrating alert, I opted to merely mute everything.
It worked. I no longer feel that phantom phone itch in my leg or where the bottom of my purse brushes against my body. (As it turns out, very few texts are actually urgent.)
I’m not the only person who hallucinates that someone is trying to communicate with me. Psychologist David Laramie dubbed the feeling “ringxiety” in his 2007 dissertation on mobile phone use and behavior, but it wasn’t invented with the cell phone. In 1996, ”phantom-pager syndrome” made an appearance in a Dilbert strip. The phenomenon has since been studied across age ranges, professions, and cultures.
A 2012 study of 290 Indiana undergraduates found that 89 percent had experienced some degree of phantom phone vibration, averaging about once every two weeks. Nor is it limited to phone-obsessed college kids. A study of hospital staffers, who are frequently tethered to pagers and phones at work, found that 68 percent of the 176 workers surveyed experienced phantom vibrations.
It’s not just vibrations, either. Laramie’s 2007 study of 320 adults found evidence for aural hallucinations, too—two-thirds of the participants actually thought they heard their phone ringing.
But why people feel vibrations where there are none is still up for debate. In the 2010 hospital worker study, the Massachusetts-based researchers hypothesized that the phantom signals “may result from a misinterpretation of incoming sensory signals by the cerebral cortex.” They continue:
In order to deal with the overwhelming amount of sensory input, the brain applies filters or schema based on what it expects to find, a process known as hypothesis guided search. In the case of phantom vibrations, because the brain is anticipating a call, it misinterprets sensory input according to this preconceived hypothesis. The actual stimulus is unknown, but candidate sensations might include pressure from clothing, muscle contractions, or other sensory stimuli.
Recently, a University of Michigan phone study posited that ringxiety is linked to insecurity. The 2016 study found that people with attachment anxiety (who are insecure in personal relationships) were more likely to experience frequent phantom vibrations. This seems to make sense: If you’re insecure in your romantic relationship, you’re probably more likely to obsess about whether or not your partner is texting you. Expecting a message or call, or being particularly concerned about something that you might be contacted about, was further associated with phantom alerts.
However, most studies have found that only a tiny fraction of people are seriously bothered by the phantom signals—typically around 2 percent of the populations examined [PDF]. In the Indiana study, “few [participants] found them bothersome,” the researchers noted. The hospital workers studied didn’t, either. Many reported phantom-vibration sufferers didn’t try to do anything about it. Others successfully rid themselves of the sensation: Of the 115 hospital workers who experienced phantom vibrations, 43 attempted to stop it by taking their device off vibrate or carrying it in a different place, with 75 percent and 63 percent success rates, respectively.
The best way to rid yourself of phantom vibrations, it seems, is to be a super secure person with no social anxieties. Or, you could just try moving your phone to a different pocket.