Excuse me; I think I’m getting a call

Today is the day, when one of your most cherished dreams is waiting to come true. Your favourite celebrity is due to arrive for the movie première at any moment. You will be watching this moment unfurl. Excitement and happiness are blinding you. Just when you are thinking about it all, the limousine arrives, a door opens, and a high-heeled stiletto appears in the dark light. A shiver runs down your spine, you become numb for the fraction of a second. But wait, “I think I’m getting a call…” and by the time you check your phone and recover from the illusion, all you can see is the burly backside of the two bodyguards.

Disappointed? If something like this figment of imagination happened with you, you are not alone. The Phantom Vibration Syndrome, imagining that your cell phone vibrated when it actually did not, happens on an average with nine out of ten people at least once a day. This Macquarie Dictionary's 2012 Word of the Year sometimes leads us to miss some crucial moments in our lives. Prior to being called Phantom Vibration Syndrome, this studied condition was briefly called ‘ringxiety.’ This phenomenon is a part of a variety of new technology driven disorders. Such phenomena associated with technology aren’t new; apparently in the age of the pager, there existed a condition called the pager phantom syndrome.

When trying to ascertain the factors behind this syndrome, there are many new viewpoints that come to light. Some researchers say that when people anticipate or expect a call or a message, is when they might experience this syndrome more often. Others feel that it’s misinterpretation of neurons firing near the pocket area either due to a muscle spasm or the movement of fabric; as people tend to centre their attention there. Earlier such a small thing went unnoticed but now, the presence of the cell phone there is something of significance that draws extra attention to the neuron firing. Now an itch gets misinterpreted as a call.  

There are a number of theories trying to highlight why the Phantom Vibration Syndrome happens and what causes it. The most common one relates to the phenomenon of pareidolia, where our brains try to fill in gaps in the information it is processing, in order to try to make sense of what's going on. A common example of this might be seeing faces in clouds, or a pattern of some gaudy hotel wallpaper. To stretch the concept a little further, the learned association between buzzing sensations and digital notifications has, through sheer frequency, become so strong as to induce a form of pareidolia in smartphone users.  

Another viewpoint looks at the attachment patterns of people and their proneness to Phantom Vibration Syndrome.  A study "Attachment anxiety predicts experiences of phantom cell phone ringing” looked at the responses and behaviour of 411 students based on their attachment patterns. It was found that the participants with higher levels of attachment anxiety, i.e. the ones who crave reassurance, experienced more phantom vibrations than those who were more prone to attachment avoidance.

Just like the reasons behind it, the impact of this syndrome also brings various interesting ideas to light. Dr. Larry D. Rosen feels that the issue is not whether people are consciously bothered by a phantom vibration, but whether our brains are unconsciously bothered. Most of Dr. Rosen’s research involves asking the participants about how often they check in with their devices or websites and their perceived anxiety about not being able to check in as often as they would like. A study by Dr. Rosen and colleagues “Is Facebook Creating ‘iDisorders’? The Link Between Clinical Symptoms of Psychiatric Disorders and Technology Use, Attitudes and Anxiety” highlights how those who were more anxious about not being able to check in with Facebook and/or text messages showed more correlates with symptoms of major depression, dysthymia, mania, antisocial personality disordernarcissism, compulsive personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder.

Interestingly, another researcher offers a fresh perspective on the same issue. Dr. Nancy Cheever’s study goes on to suggest the difference between allowing and denying cell phone usage, as well as the difference between heavy and light cell phone users in terms of anxiety. The group who were allowed to keep but not use their phones, did show a slight increase in anxiety from the first testing (20 minutes into the session) but their anxiety appeared to level off and not increase between the second and third measurement points. The group that had their smartphones taken away at the beginning showed a more drastic increase both between the first two measurements and the second and third measurements. An even more interesting result was discovered by the researchers when the participants were separated, based on their self-reported use, into heavy and light smartphone users. The heavy smartphone users who showed the greatest increase in anxiety across the 60 minutes.

Whatever be the reasons behind the occurrence of this syndrome, they might invariably lead to anxiety, causing the attention to be centred on the phone so much so that people may end up missing some crucial moments in their life (just like the fictional scenario above). It can cause sleep disturbances, inattention, distraction and many more such small effects can snowball to have serious repercussions. It can also impact job performance and social interactions.

One of the advantages of science is it just does not pose questions but also tries to find answers to those questions. So, if you are actually dealing with this syndrome, help is handy. Dr. Rosen, in his book ‘iDisorder’ takes the approach that people can learn from neuroscience research about what calms human brains. And those can be used by people who think they are suffering from this syndrome. Some of the suggestions need to be practised for 10 minutes every couple of hours to have an effective impact. These suggestions include taking a short walk in natural surroundings or just going outside, doing a short mindful meditation session, exercising, listening to music, and singing, practicing a foreign language, reading a joke book, talking to someone in person. In short, taking strategic time out in such a way that the activities are planned away from the cell phone.

Till next time, try to not fall prey to the Phantom Vibration Syndrome. Unless, you are stuck in a desperate situation where you and your brain seem to be struggling to escape (read: boring social gatherings) then maybe you can trick others to believe: “Excuse me, I think I’m getting a call.”

Priya Baid