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Here’s Why You Feel Phantom Phone Vibrations

Man holding cellphone in pocket
Kitja Kitja/Shutterstock

If you’ve ever set your phone to vibrate and tucked it into your pocket, you can probably relate to this: you feel a vibration and check your phone, only to see that you don’t have any notifications at all. Your friends have probably had similar experiences. As it turns out, this “phantom vibration” phenomenon is not at all uncommon.

Your sense of touch is usually one of the most trustworthy ones, or so it seems. Sights can play tricks on your eyes, or you may mishear what someone says to you. Yet, how often do you feel something that isn’t there?

The phantom vibration is caused by some pretty normal ways that our brains interpret the sense of touch. New technology has tripped up this ancient sense, creating the sensation of phantom vibrations. Here’s how it all works.

Does Everyone Feel Phantom Vibrations?

Phantom vibrations are so common that there’s actually a name for the phenomenon: phantom vibration syndrome. While not quite everyone seems to experience it, studies suggest that as many as 70 to 90 percent of people do.

Interestingly, there aren’t really any similar experiences that aren’t related to our phones. Before the cell-phone era, people didn’t experience phantom sensations of touch regularly. Of course, there were rarer touch-related deceptions, such as the “phantom limb” experience of amputees. However, there weren’t any widespread sensations like phantom vibration syndrome.

It appears that living close to technology has changed how our brains work in some substantial ways. Here’s how the research suggests phantom vibrations work.

Why You Feel Your Phone Vibrating When It Isn’t

Minor sensations that once would have been interpreted in the brain (correctly) as an itch, a rub of clothing against skin, or something similar, now get misinterpreted as our phones going off.

We’re so attached to our phones that they’ve become sources of anxiety, which can translate into a sort-of compulsive behavior. How many times have you repeatedly picked up your phone to check the same email inbox or a social media site, almost without realizing it?

Because of this attachment, our brains feel the need to do something with our phones at all times. This constant low-level anxiety about maybe getting a text or notification keeps your phone high on your brain’s priority list. So, when you feel a touch-related sensation near where you keep your phone, it feels like you should check your phone.

But how does this happen without us realizing it? Research suggests that when we keep our phones in our pockets or otherwise near our bodies, they start to feel like an extension of ourselves.

For example, when you wear clothing or a pair of glasses, you quickly forget that those things are touching you. You become used to the sensations, and those items become extensions of your own body. A phone in the pocket works much the same way. So, when you feel a bit of movement, an itch, or another touch sensation, your brain assumes its coming from this new pseudo-body part: your phone.

In short, we’re very attached to our phones, and we’re always waiting for them to go off. Because of this anxiety and the fact that our phones are often touching us, our brains jump to the conclusion that small, unrelated sensations come from our phones.

The good news is those phantom vibrations are harmless. Still, if you want to avoid this syndrome, simply leaving your phone alone for an hour or two at a time is likely enough to stop it. Once your brain gets a break from the technology, it will return to correctly interpreting touch signals from your body.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »