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Have you ever thought you felt your phone vibrate, only to pull it out of your pocket and find that you have no new notifications? If so, you've experienced 'phantom vibration syndrome.' But what causes these mystery sensations, and are they cause for alarm?

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Signal Detection Theory Book (2002)

Phantom phone vibration in BMJ (2010)

Phantom phone buzzing in PLOS (2013)

Stress and burnout (2014)

High Ringxiety: attachment anxiety predicts experiences of phantom cell phone ringing (2016);jsessionid=B2E0CA1829BF58B78C09E37895C2EF86?sequence=1

Phantom buzz in Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine (2018)

Anxiety, depression and phantom vibration in India (2019)
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How many times has this happened to you? Your phone buzzes, so you grab it and unlock the screen… but there's no notification in sight. You've experienced a phantom phone vibration, or what some experts call phantom vibration syndrome.

The good news is, it's super common, and not harmful on its own. But how often you experience these phantom buzzes may hold clues about your mental health in general. Results differ from study to study, but researchers are pretty sure phantom vibrations affect a lot of people.

Phantom ringing is also a thing, but not all studies look at both at the same time, so we're going to focus on the buzzing. In one of the earliest studies of the subject in 2010, they found that around 68% of participants experienced some kind of phantom buzz. This was before most people carried smartphones in their pocket, so the researchers studied medical staff who always carried phones or pagers on vibrate mode.

In the years since then, researchers have found some factors that make you more or less likely to feel the vibrations in the first place — like a younger age, keeping your phone on vibrate, and keeping it in a breast pocket. But these mystery vibrations themselves don't seem to be doing any harm. They're more of a quirk of our normal senses.

Phantom phone vibes are likely a false alarm in something called our signal detection system. Which is exactly what it sounds like. Our brains receive some kind of vague stimulus, like a light touch or dull noise, and make a decision about what it means.

In the case of a phantom phone vibration, our brain has interpreted some other stimulus as a notification. That stimulus could be a familiar noise or a commonplace muscle twitch that kinda sorta maybe feels or sounds like a vibration. Plus, we expect to get notifications.

And that makes our brains more likely to interpret other stimuli, or even a lack thereof, as a phone vibration. Getting false alarms from our signal detection system isn't necessarily a bad thing. But researchers have wondered if conditions like anxiety or depression might predispose us to experience false vibes more often.

One 2013 study followed 74 medical interns over the course of a year long internship, and measured how often they felt phantom buzzes as well as any symptoms of anxiety and depression. The researchers expected the interns would feel more phantom vibrations as their stress and anxiety increased, but in the end, phantom vibes happened totally independent of the participants' anxiety. On the other hand, a different study in 2014 looked specifically at tech employees and found that phantom vibes were associated with job stress and burnout.

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