Friday Weird Science: Is that a Cell Phone in your Pocket or are you just happy to see me?

May 27 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

Ever since doing a couple of pieces of cell phones and things like sperm, I've become curious about what other studies have been done on the effects of cell phone use and keeping a small, highly addictive electronic object on your person (even though, sometimes, I end up very wrong). Not surprisingly, there's a large number of studies out there (over 2700 come up on PubMed for the search term "cell phone", though not all of them are directly related), and many of them show really positive effects, things like using cell phones for keeping track of at-risk elderly persons, for mental health counseling, using text message based education systems for HIV testing and sexual health education, etc. Of course, many others look into fears of what all those little electromagnetic frequency waves might be doing to our gonads or our brains.

But what about what the cell phone might be doing to your PSYCHE?!!?!? Is it changing the way you think? The way you perceive? The way you...

...hold on, I think that's my phone vibrating...

...heh, oh well, wasn't anything, funny how that happens. You know, that happens to the clinical people in my department ALL the time, they keep thinking their cell phone or pager's going off...

...hey wait.

Rothberg, et al. "Phantom vibration syndrome among medical staff: a cross sectional survey" British Medical Journal, 2010.

I'm sure most of you have heard of the concept of a phantom limb.

Not this kind:

But the phantom limb I'm talking about is a feeling that a body part or organ which has been removed (or sometimes which never existed in the first place), is still there and is moving and experiencing things along with the rest of your body. Usually people who have phantom limb experience pain, itching, or tingling.

However, you can also get a 'phantom' sensation for things that are NOT your body. This is not a phantom in the limb sense, but rather it's a hallucination. You can have hallucinations that you hear a sound, or feel something. This usually works best when you're highly anxious or hyper-attuned to your surroundings. Say you're waiting for someone to visit you. There! Was that a knock? I thought I heard a footstep just then...

So this goes for sounds when you're expecting something or otherwise on edge. Especially if you're ALWAYS expecting something to happen, someone to contact you, etc, etc. And WHO is always expecting to be contacted, summoned, or called any minute?

Well, medical professionals, for one.

Of course, many people have anecdotes of having phantom phone or pager vibrations (as well as anecdotes of how much they ENJOYED said vibrations...wink wink), but there haven't been any real studies to look at the phenomenon. So a group of authors decided to conduct a preliminary study. And when I say preliminary, I mean REALLY preliminary. SO preliminary that their survey method of choice was SurveyMonkey (and suffice it to say that that's NOT a general clinical survey tool).

But they did get 169 people at their medical campus to respond to the survey. The results are in a highly boring looking table.

But they found that 68% of the people surveyed had experienced phantom phone rings (or pager rings). Most of the time, people started experiencing phantom vibrations when they had been carrying the phone or pager for between 1 month and one year. Most people felt them weekly, but 13% of people who felt them felt them DAILY.

So what are the biggest factors for experiencing phantom vibrations? Turns out it's a case of where you keep your phone, how often it's on vibrate (feeling phantom vibrations is a lot easier than hearing a phantom ring), and what your occupation is. You're more likely to get phantom vibrations if your phone is on vibrate a lot, you're more likely to get them if you keep it in your breast pocket, and you're more likely to get them...if you're a resident. Or med student. Though young docs and docs in training definitely had the hardest time.

BUT! If you're a medical resident or a med student, or just someone who puts their phone on vibrate a lot, you CAN stop it! About 39% of those who got the phantom vibrations did something to stop them, usually taking the cell phone or pager off vibrate or moving it to another pocket. Most people, however, didn't try to stop the tactile hallucination. Apparently it just didn't bother them enough.

So, WHY med students and residents the most? The authors offer a couple of options, one of which I think is the most likely. The first is that the students and residents are the youngest people in the hospital, and so they might have enhanced neural plasticity and be more sensitive to experiencing the hallucination. But the other one, and the one that I think is most likely, is that the med students and residents are probably getting urgent pages and calls MORE OFTEN than people who are more senior (in the case of the residents, they are often working far more hours, and so of course they will get more urgent calls in the end).

They don't mention a third possible reason. Med students and young residents are less used to the stresses placed on them in the hospital setting. Often they have less experience dealing with the rigors and issues, and so they might be more on edge, and more expectant of urgent contacts, even when those urgent contacts may not actually happen. I think that the higher stress (or anyway, stress they haven't yet habituated to) might make them more likely to hallucinate the phantom pager, kind of like how if you're stressed about work, you'll dream of work (like the other day I totally dreamed that someone was trying to make me do an ELISA on candied DATES of all things...anyway).

Of course this study has loads of issues. The data was taken at a single point in time, so there's no telling if people got more used to their cell phones and pages over time, and felt the phantom vibrations less. It was a survey of only medical professionals, so doesn't take into account possible careers with varying levels of pager use and urgency of contact. And of course the authors talk at the end about how, well, if 2/3 of people who USE pagers are getting phantom vibration syndrome, then we might need effective treatment!

Eh. Effective treatment? I think that's got a lot to do with the stress that causes you to constantly carry your phone and constantly expect a call, rather than treatment for the tactile hallucination. In the meantime, well, maybe take your cell or pager off vibrate when you can. Or move pockets. Or, just go with the flow and try to enjoy and marvel at your own tactile hallucinations.

For another take on this story, make sure you listen to the Scienceline podcast! They just did a feature on it!

Rothberg, M., Arora, A., Hermann, J., Kleppel, R., Marie, P., & Visintainer, P. (2010). Phantom vibration syndrome among medical staff: a cross sectional survey BMJ, 341 (dec15 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.c6914

9 responses so far

  • Zombie says:

    There have been times when I've had "phantom rings" several times a day, even when my phone wasn't in my pocket.

    I wonder if I'm more prone for some weird brain reason though. Especially when I'm tired or half asleep. My brain often misinterprets sounds just at the edge of hearing as music. There have been times when some fan or other constant noise-producing gadget has kept me up all night because I keep trying to figure if I'm really hearing music or not. I figured it was the auditory equivalent of seeing Jesus on my grilled cheese sandwich, but maybe its more like one of these cellphone hallucinations...

    No voices yet, fortunately...

  • Jack Aidley says:

    I consider people who get phantom vibrations merely daily lucky.

  • Kevin says:

    When I'm on the move I keep my cellphone in my front trouser pocket. When travelling by public transport I often listen to podcasts, and so can't hear my cellphone ringing. Because of this my phone is always in vibrate mode.

    I often have phantom vibrations in these circumstances. Many times during a journey I have to put my hand to my pocket to feel if the phone's vibrating.

    Whether the vibrations come through the bus/tram or are true phantom vibrations, I don't know.

    What I do know is that even in vibrate mode I still miss calls when my ears are otherwise occupied!

    P.S. I'm not a medic!

  • Allie says:

    Sometimes I'll switch my phone to the pocket on the other side of my body, and I'll get phantom vibrations on the side I usually keep it. Always bugs me when that happens...

    And then other times, my phone will ACTUALLY vibrate in my pocket, and I won't feel a thing.

  • arvind says:

    What? No phantom orgasms? I've been robbed, I say! ROBBED!!

  • Tybo says:

    arvind: Mo at Neurophilosophy covered phantom erections a while back:

  • arvind says:

    Yikes! Phantom erection?! There must be a special circle of hell where that is done to men.

  • Shira says:

    I've heard phantom ECG beeps, IV and syringe pump alarms, page/intercom alert beeps... usually after a very long, stressful string of shifts, and they seem to occur when I'm trying to wind down, OR just waking up. It's considered "normal" (by my coworkers) to have this experience. I find it can be annoying, funny or both. ("That's some nasty VTach"-- wait, there's no ECG, that's my alarm clock. Awesome".)

  • McVibrate says:

    I get vibrations a couple time a week when the phone is no where near me. I always carry it in my back pocket. Then when i get a vibration in my back pocket. I reach for my cell phone and it is across the room. I can understand the phantom buzz when the cell phone is still in some ones pocket but whats the deal with this one. I am 48 years old and could care less whether I get a text or not so there is no pre anticipation from wanting to get texted more often or anticipating a facebook message from a friend. This is weird stuff. For the butt it may have something to do with nerve endings but I am just guessing on that one.

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