Phantom vibration syndrome or phantom ringing is the perception that one’s mobile phone is vibrating or ringing when it is not. Other terms for this concept include ringxiety (a portmanteau of ring and anxiety) and fauxcellarm (a play on “false alarm”). According to Dr. Michael Rothberg, the term is not technically a syndrome, but is better characterised as a tactile hallucination since the brain perceives a sensation that is not present.
Phantom ringing may be experienced while taking a shower, watching television, or using a noisy device. Humans are particularly sensitive to auditory tones between 1,000 and 6,000 hertz, and basic mobile phone ringers often fall within this range. Phantom vibrations develop after carrying a cell phone set to use vibrating alerts. Researcher Michelle Drouin found that almost 9 of 10 undergraduates at her college experienced phantom vibrations.
In the comic strip Dilbert, cartoonist Scott Adams referenced such a sensation in 1996 as “phantom-pager syndrome.” The earliest published use of the term phantom vibration syndrome dates to 2003 in an article entitled “Phantom Vibration Syndrome” published in the New Pittsburgh Courier, written under a pen name of columnist Robert D. Jones. In the conclusion of the article, Jones wrote, “…should we be concerned about what our mind or body may be trying to tell us by the aggravating imaginary emanations from belts, pockets and even purses? Whether PVS is the result of physical nerve damage, a mental health issue, or both, this growing phenomenon seems to indicate that we may have crossed a line in this ‘always on’ society.”
The first study of the phenomenon was conducted in 2007 by a researcher who coined the term ringxiety to describe it. In 2012, the term phantom vibration syndrome was chosen as the Australian Macquarie Dictionary’s word of the year.
The cause of phantom vibrations is not known. Preliminary research suggests it is related to over-involvement with one’s cell phone. Vibrations typically begin occurring after carrying a phone for between one month and one year. It has been suggested that, when anticipating a phone call, the cerebral cortex may misinterpret other sensory input (such as muscle contractions, pressure from clothing, or music) as a phone vibration or ring tone.
In most studies, a majority of cell phone users report experiencing occasional phantom vibrations or ringing, with reported rates ranging from 27.4% to 89%. Once every two weeks is a typical frequency for the sensations, though a minority experience them daily. Most people are not seriously bothered by the sensations.
There is little research on treatment for phantom vibrations. Carrying the cell phone in a different position reduces phantom vibrations for some people. Other methods include turning off the vibrate mode or using a different device.