Is that your phone?
July 13, 2012 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Was that your phone? Phantom vibrations are something that over two thirds of people experience - the sense that your phone may be vibrating, even when it isn't in your pocket. A few studies have looked into the phenomenon, which might be caused by the conditioning of phone users. And the same sensitivity that allows parents to hear their baby's cry, also makes it easy to think you hear a cell phone ring during a song or commercial.
posted by blahblahblah (38 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Shit I totally have this. Phantom ringing, too. It most often happens when I'm in my car (Because the speakers can make the door panel next to my leg buzz a little) or when my phone is somewhere else (Because did I hear something? Was that my phone? Huh, guess it was nothing.)

It's particularly bad right now when my SO is on the other side of the country and the phone is my primary means of communication with her.
posted by Scientist at 10:50 AM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

In Finland, Nokia rings everybody's phone on the bus.
posted by infini at 10:54 AM on July 13, 2012

UGH. I get this with the doorbell when I am in the shower, and tbh I am not sure if it is weird conditioning or the actual demonstrable fact that when I am home, most deliveries come when I have soap in my eyes.
posted by elizardbits at 10:55 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have this. I also developed a similar condition during a particularly bad mosquito season, where the slightest sensation of pressure on exposed skin, or the glimpsing of small dark objects like blobs of lint in the edges of my vision, would be immediately met with a surge of adrenalin and more often then not a violent slap.

That got better eventually, so presumably the conditioning for phantom vibration will wear off over time as well if you aren't exposed to the stimulus.
posted by figurant at 10:56 AM on July 13, 2012

I don't get them very often but when I do it's almost always in my car. I think the normal car vibrations end up tricking me. I don't think I've ever gotten one at work sitting at my desk for instance, even though I probably get over a dozen vibration alerts of some kind over the course of a workday.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:56 AM on July 13, 2012

elizardbits, yours might have to do with the fact that your brain can find any sound it wants in white noise. Sitting near the back in a rear-engined jet airliner, after a while I start picking out any sound I can imagine in it; phones, birdsong, 80s hair metal, the plaintive cry of the lonesome stoat...
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:56 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm just relieved to find that I'm not alone in this. I have my mobile on vibrate mode 99% of the time because I think it is a bit rude to audibly interrupt others. So many times I've thought I felt it vibrate and was mistaken. Now I know for sure it is all in my head.
posted by dgran at 11:00 AM on July 13, 2012

It's particularly bad right now when my SO is on the other side of the country and the phone is my primary means of communication with her.

I totally agree with this. The more I am expecting important communication, the more often I have phantom vibrations.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:01 AM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I do this with it vibrating in my pocket. It's weird
posted by deezil at 11:02 AM on July 13, 2012

I have this, with the unfortunate complication that I also often do not notice when it ACTUALLY vibrates.
posted by lily_bart at 11:05 AM on July 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

This happens to me too.
posted by R. Mutt at 11:06 AM on July 13, 2012

It's not that I mind the phantom vibration so much, I just wish I could relocate it...
posted by zoog at 11:07 AM on July 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I used to get this real bad all the time. I started changing my ringtone every few months or so and it went away! Phantom vibrations still haunt me though.
posted by Garm at 11:08 AM on July 13, 2012

When I first got current cell phone, I was so sensitive to the vibrations that I'd actually flinch and let out a surprised yelp whenever the phone rang. It was like receiving an unexpected electric shock, and lead to a couple embarrassing moments during meetings.

Now I barely even notice it to the point where I've turned the ringer on because I'm worried I might miss a call.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 11:15 AM on July 13, 2012

My phone, which my job provides, fills me with dread when it rings. I notice my phantom calls come the most frequently when I have left work and am heading home.
posted by notmydesk at 11:17 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

This just happened to me this morning, and right after, I looked at Metafilter and saw this article.

I think that's a Metafilter phantom.

(This actually happened.)
posted by NedKoppel at 11:18 AM on July 13, 2012

The rustling of my pants against my legs when I walk (or even when I shift my weight while standing) fairly frequently causes the phantom phonecall effect for me...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:23 AM on July 13, 2012

Paranoia is a helluva drug
posted by stormpooper at 11:25 AM on July 13, 2012

I get the phantom vibrating -- even though I generally don't have my phone on vibrate when in my pocket, and when I do I typically miss those calls -- and for the first several years of my kids' lives, every time I took a shower I thought I could hear them crying. Very disconcerting, and now I'm glad I have some science to take away a bit of the heebie-jeebies.
posted by davejay at 11:41 AM on July 13, 2012

I didn’t know this was common, but I get this too. The strange thing is I only use my phone a couple of times a week (on a busy week) and I never have it set to vibrate only. But I still think it’s vibrating in my shirt pocket sometimes. I just assumed it was weird phone radiation causing heart damage.
posted by bongo_x at 11:43 AM on July 13, 2012

That happened to me a lot, but I solved the problem by getting this phone.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:49 AM on July 13, 2012

Once I thought heard my old cordless phone ringing while listening to music, and I was surprised because I hadn't had the phone for years. I'd experienced phantom phone rings plenty of times, but never with the sound of a ringer I wasn't currently using.

It turned out to be the same cordless phone ringing very quietly in the background during the recording of the song.
posted by helicomatic at 11:55 AM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I get that thing, you know, where your girlfriend's face turns into a touch screen for a second? Annoying, right?
posted by orme at 11:56 AM on July 13, 2012

Yes with the vibration. It'll even give me different phantom patterns, like sometimes it feels like a text, other times like a phone call, and others like an email arriving.

Oh, what brave new world.
posted by BeeDo at 12:02 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a bit relieved that this is A Thing, though in my case, it's not clearly related to my phone use or to the conditioning they describe. I get phantom vibrations that feel like a pocketed phone on vibrate... even though I usually have my phone turned off or to silent-with-no-vibration and I almost never carry it in my pocket.

In fact, the first time my phone ever vibrated in my pocket, I ignored it because I thought it was just this phantom vibration thing that happens to me sometimes.

It turned out to be the same cordless phone ringing very quietly in the background during the recording of the song.

GAH, I HATE THAT. See also: the sound of sirens looping faintly in the background of a song.
posted by Elsa at 12:03 PM on July 13, 2012

I get the phantom phone vibration all the time.


I wear an insulin pump which also vibrates, too.

I'm all fucked up in the vibration arena.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:07 PM on July 13, 2012

There's the reverse: when I first got a phone, I had it in my pocket on vibrate when I went to let a bee out of the house. Someone called and I was certain I was about to get stung directly in the place labeled NEVER GET STUNG HERE. Got a little light-headed for a second.
posted by yerfatma at 12:09 PM on July 13, 2012

I had a girl on my lap and thought my phone went off but she just farted.
posted by herrdoktor at 12:12 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Metafilter: (This actually happened.)
posted by herbplarfegan at 12:21 PM on July 13, 2012

The New York Times 'reported on' phantom ringtones and vibrations way back in 2006, which was where I first realised it wasn't just me. I get it all the time, but only definitively established that it was all in my head by spending time sitting around naked and noticing that it still happened :)
posted by jacalata at 12:36 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

herrdoktor: "I had a girl on my lap and thought my phone went off but she just farted

That is eerily close to the oldest known joke. From 1900 BC in Sumeria:

"Something which has never occurred since time immemorial - a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."
posted by lazaruslong at 1:42 PM on July 13, 2012

I tuck my phone under my leg while I'm driving and it gets hot. For a while I got a hot spot on the back of my thigh, just walking around at random times. It was just about the size and shape of my phone. Once I figured out the connection it stop happening.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:49 PM on July 13, 2012

I wish I'd gotten this in earlier, but oh well:

OMG I'm not alone! I thought I was alone....

(me):Hi, my name is Farce, I have phantom vibrations...
(folks in folding chairs): Hi Farce, we love you!

Bill Hicks still dead, huh? too bad
posted by Farce_First at 3:59 PM on July 13, 2012

I promised myself that I wasn't going to comment on this post at all, until I read this in the "conditioning" link...

Phantom cellphone vibrations also can be explained by neuroplasticity — the brain's ability to form new connections in response to changes in the environment.

Some days I think all science journalism should be banned.... This is one of the stupidest things I've ever seen written, and is possibly my new favourite example of pointless neurobabble. It's either unsubstantiated or trivially true. If neuroplasticity is defined as "any change in pattern and strength of synaptic connections" then literally everything about human behaviour can be "explained" by neuroplasticity because neuroplasticity encompasses everything there is about the human mind. On the other hand, if neuroplasticity is a somewhat more specific term (and it is), then in order for this to be a meaningful explanation then we'd need hear about a specific claim about what neurophysiological structures are changing over time to produce an increased rate of false detections of phone rings. Naturally, no such explanation is offered because this is science "journalism" rather than science. (I note that the comments made by the actual neuroscientist in the article are vague and only refer to some generic template-matching idea, but are more careful to avoid the vacuous neurobabble)

Here's an alternative explanation based on good old fashioned psychology and statistics. At any given point in time you have some collection of sensory experiences, denoted S. One of the many things you want to infer from your sensory experiences is whether or not your phone is ringing, denoted R. That is, you want to know P( R | S ), the probability that your phone is ringing given the sensory data available to you. This is quite consistent with the "template" idea that the scientist in the article is referring to, but it stands on its own without requiring any layer of neural explanations. Basic probability theory will do all the work for us. By Bayes theorem:

P( R | S ) = P( S | R ) P ( R ) / P( S )

where the two key terms here are P( R ), the prior probability that your phone is ringing, and P( S | R ) , the probability that you would have experienced the sensations that you have observed if your phone was ringing.

The more people use cell phones, the larger P( R ) will be, so P( R | S ) will increase *in general*, so it's easier to conclude that your phone is ringing even when it isn't. Psychologists would refer to this as a shift in criterion (usually referred to as c in signal detection theory terms). In short, increase in phantom vibrations are a natural, logical consequence of the fact that people use cell phones more often. In fact, the data even show that people who use cell phones more often are more likely to experience phantom vibrations more, as the statistics would predict. It's also pretty straightforward to account for the fact that emotional-response to text has an effect on the rate of phantom vibrations, but I'd need a second equation to do so and would have to explain basic statistical decision theory, which is mildly tedious.

Better yet, this simple theory also explains Scientist's observations in the first comment: if you're in an environment that will tend to produce more vibrations, then P( S | R ) will go up even when the phone isn't ringing, because the non-phone causes of sensory experiences become more phone like. Psychologists would refer to the latter as a decrease in discriminability (d' in signal detection terms).

Phantom vibrations are an interesting phenomenon, but the statistical tools needed to explain the phenomenon have been around for centuries. Moreover, signal detection theory has been mainstream psychology since the 1960s, and actually traces its roots back to the origins of psychophysics in the 1860s. None of which is to say that there isn't a neural-level explanation of the phenomenon (obviously, there *must* exist a neural-level explanation since this whole thing happens in the brain), but the quasi-mystical references to "neuroplasticity" without an actual formal theory to back it up is nothing other than the sort. Given that psychology already provides a single equation (via signal detection theory) and statistics provides a similar one (via Bayes theorem) that perfectly capture the phenomenon, I'm deeply disappointed to see this sort of vacuous content-free drivel being offered as if it were scientifically meaningful. It's not just an insult to psychology and statistics, but it trivialises neuroscience, which is in reality a much more impressive discipline than this sort of rubbish would suggest.

/rant (and apologies... this kind of thing gets under my skin a little)
posted by mixing at 4:29 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have my phone on vibrate, holstered in a belt clip at my side. On occasion I will feel a vibration, but it ends up being gas.

There are also moments where I will not feel the vibration, which has led to many accusations of me willfully ignoring phone calls.
posted by CancerMan at 5:33 PM on July 13, 2012

I get this all the damn time. Of course, when my phone actually vibrates, I generally don't notice it at all. The twitches, though, they get me, and have me checking my phone like an idiot.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:56 PM on July 13, 2012

It doesn't help when you live in earthquake-plagued Japan, either. A number of times I've checked my phone for a call and then realized, with that all-too-familiar PTSD sickening feeling in the stomach - nope, that's just the house shaking again.
posted by jet_manifesto at 3:38 AM on July 14, 2012

I get this with the doorbell when I am in the shower

I constantly hear muffled voices in the bathwater.

In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes suggested that oracles used to set up shop next to waterfalls for exactly that reason.
posted by tangerine at 6:38 AM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

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