What is Phantom Vibration Syndrome and How Can You Avoid it?

This article explains what phantom vibration syndrome is, why it occurs, and what the possible complications and solutions are.
What is Phantom Vibration Syndrome and How Can You Avoid it?
Elena Sanz

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 29 December, 2022

Phantom vibration syndrome can be considered one more consequence of the excessive use of technologies – in this case, cell phones. Maybe you’ve even felt it: your cell phone vibrates in your pocket or purse, but you check and see that no one has called or texted you.

This has to do with the way the brain reacts to the stimuli that we perceive, or think we perceive. However, it is also thought that it may be related to some disorders. Below, we’ll tell you more about phantom vibration and why it occurs.

Perceptual biases

phantom vibrtation syndrome
The mind may believe that a stimulus, such as cell phone vibration, exists, even though it does not.

In any situation, whether there’s a stimulus or not, there are several possibilities:

  • The stimulus is presented, the senses perceive it, and the brain processes it.
  • There is a stimulus, but we do not perceive it.
  • There’s no stimulus and no perception.
  • There’s no stimulus, but the brain thinks there is.

The latter is related to the so-called “perceptual predispositions”, a concept that has been used to understand the process of language acquisition and development in children.

In this regard, studies on the subject indicate that humans are born with the ability to distinguish the possible sounds of the language, which are then learned or not, depending on whether that sound is used in the language spoken in the environment.

And just as we have the ability for this, we don’t have the ability to recognize if a plant is edible by scent, for example. In general, it’s thought that the more predisposed we are to a stimulus, the more likely we are to perceive it.

It can even happen when the stimulus is not present since even in its absence the respective sensory receptors are activated. It’s opportune to remember that, to a large extent, perception does not take place in the senses, but in the brain.

All this would explain what also happens in the case of phantom vibration syndrome. It can also allow us to understand why people did not experience the phenomenon we are talking about before there were cell phones.

What is phantom vibration syndrome?

Phantom vibration syndrome is the phenomenon that occurs when we feel that our cell phone has been activated without this corresponding to reality, which we often verify after checking it.

Of course, it happens to us because we are cell phone users and because we have a phone with us that’s in contact with our bodies. So, we have perceived the stimulus (vibration) many times, to the point that our brain already associates it with some notification.

Now, the phantom vibration can occur at any time, but the chances increase when we are waiting for a call or an important message, and we’re often very attentive, checking the phone at every moment.

According to research, this is something experienced by a large majority of users. Nearly 90% have said that they notice a phantom vibration with an average frequency of two weeks, or even less.

This is another sign or manifestation of technology addiction. And although it’s not properly considered a disease or behavioral disorder, it may well be related to obsessive traits or anxiety, as we will see later.

We think you may be interested in reading this, too: Four Negative Effects of Cell Phone Use That You Did Not Know

The causes of phantom vibration syndrome

There may be several causes that explain the occurrence of phantom vibration syndrome. We’ve already mentioned one of them: excessive contact or addiction to technology, which hyperstimulates and predisposes us.

Secondly, this phenomenon may be related to an emotional component in the user. For example, it may occur more often in situations of stress, anguish, or anticipatory anxiety, when we are waiting for an important call, as mentioned.

Such situations can put us in a state of hypervigilance similar to that of a soldier who is on guard and believes he perceives signs of the enemy at all times, or that of a person who has been the victim of a crime and is startled when he thinks he hears the sound of a door opening.

It can also happen to us when we are going through a difficult time and we experience a feeling of vulnerability, for example, in the face of a breakup. It’s possible that we then seek to escape or take refuge constantly in our cell phones.

On the other hand, there are studies in which it has been observed that the notifications emitted by phone applications can activate neurotransmitters such as dopamine, so they are related to a dynamic of pleasure or displeasure. Thus, the phantom vibration syndrome may function as a form of anticipation in the face of a desire.

Possible complications

Cell phones and phantom vibrtation syndrome
A dependence on the cell phone can lead to the appearance of phantom vibration syndrome.

Although it was noted that phantom vibration syndrome is not a pathology, it may be associated with some problems, such as increased dependence on the use of cell phones and low emotional stability, as found in a study.

Also, research conducted in Taiwan revealed that this phenomenon occurs more frequently in workers with high levels of personal and work fatigue, so it’s thought to be a sign of stress or burnout syndrome (burnout).

On the other hand, a study conducted in India in 2017 suggests that the phantom vibration syndrome, in addition to being a symptom of a cell phone addiction, could evidence psychological or neurological changes, possibly leading to anxiety, depression, and other affective disorders

In other research, it’s been noted that it even affects the quality of sleep. In fact, among the participating subjects, more than half reported waking up at night believing that the phone was vibrating.

In general, these false alerts do not constitute a complication for most people; but the fact that it manifests itself more often in people with attachment anxiety traits and emotional dependence is a concern.

How to avoid phantom vibration syndrome

Given that this is an emerging phenomenon, which is quite associated with the person’s lifestyle, some changes in habits can help to manage the problem and avoid greater evils.

In this regard, the following recommendations can be taken into account:

  • Keep your phone with the sound on instead of using vibration only.
  • Mute social network notifications, leaving only call notifications.
  • Decrease the time of use of the cell phone.
  • Activate the do not disturb mode when sleeping or eating.

Like this article? You may also like to read: The Top 10 Mobile Phones that Emit the Most Radiation

When to seek help

At first, you may take the phantom vibration syndrome as a misperception and even find it funny, without making a big deal out of it. However, it can become recurrent, causing annoyance, disappointment, frustration, and even anger.

If this is your case, and if the use of the phone causes you anxiety or stress, or you can’t leave it even for a moment, it’s important to take measures such as seeing a psychologist and, as a complement, meeting with support groups.

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The contents of this publication are for informational purposes only. At no time can they serve to facilitate or replace the diagnoses, treatments, or recommendations of a professional. Consult with your trusted specialist if you have any doubts and seek their approval before beginning any procedure.