Explaining phantom cellphone vibrations

Some recent studies suggest phantom cellphone vibrations are common and here are some possible explanations for why they happen:

A handful of studies in recent years have examined the prevalence of phantom cellphone vibrations, and they’ve come up with impressive numbers, from 68 percent of the medical staff at a Massachusetts hospital to 89 percent of undergraduates at a midwestern university, to more than 90 percent of Taiwanese doctors-in-training in the middle of their internships…

Hallucination may not be the most appropriate term, according to Laramie. “You’re misinterpreting something, but there is this external cue. You’re not totally making it up.” A compelling alternative, he suggests, is pareidolia. “That’s the phenomenon where you see a face in the clouds or hear ‘Paul is dead’ when you listen to the Beatles backwards.” (Or see the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich). Essentially, it’s your brain getting a little bit carried away with its normally very useful talent for finding patterns in the world around you…

In his thesis research, he found the two biggest predictors of phantom vibrations and ringing were age (young people experienced them more) and the extent to which people relied on their phone to regulate their emotional state—checking their phone when they wanted to calm down, for example, or get an emotional boost. “My hunch is at this point it’s a generational thing,” Laramie said. Twenty- and thirty-somethings who grew up with cellphones and have them ingrained in their daily lives probably experience the effect more than older people or technophobes, he says…

Like Laramie, Bensmaia thinks phantom vibrations are a result of the brain’s penchant for filling in the gaps to find patterns. A visual equivalent, he suggests, is seeing the outlines of furniture when you walk through your house in near-total darkness, or seeing the image of a Dalmatian in a field of black and white dots (it’s hard to see at first, but once you detect the pattern it’s almost impossible not to see it)…

“What happens, I think, is that because your clothes are rubbing against your skin, you cause activity in the same receptors, and that activity is just similar enough to the activity caused by a vibrating phone that it triggers the learned association and the perception of a vibrating phone,” he said. It’s not clear exactly where in the brain that occurs, Bensmaia says, but it probably involves the primary somatosensory cortex and other higher-level areas that process the sense of touch.

Is it then too far of a leap to suggest that phones are rewiring our brains in certain ways? Granted, lots of objects or behaviors might prompt rewiring but I suspect a good number of people would recoil at this idea as they normally don’t think the connections between objects and actions and the brain.

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