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What Causes Phantom Smartphone Buzzing?

You know the feeling—you think your phone is buzzing in your pocket, you go to see what’s up, and there’s nothing there. Why does it happen?

If you’re addicted to your smartphone, you probably don’t need to have the concept of “phantom vibration” explained to you. You know the feeling—you think your phone is buzzing in your pocket, you go to see what’s up, and you discover that there’s nothing there. You simply imagined the vibration. Does that mean you’re spending too much time obsessing over your smartphone? Well, probably. But at least you’re not alone: one study conducted at a medical center found that 68 percent of the staff had experienced phantom vibrations, and now some scientists are trying to explain its causes.

A few scientists have taken their best guesses—and their theories aren’t exactly comforting. According to Mental Floss, Michael Rothberg, a clinician at the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., believes that our brains are applying a “hypothesis guided search.” Basically, he thinks that because we expect our phones to buzz constantly, we automatically interpret any random sensation as phone buzzing. California State University professor Larry Rosen, meanwhile, has expressed almost exactly the same theory. The bottom line is that we’re so addicted to our smartphones that we’re tricking our brains into thinking they’re vibrating when they’re not.

It’s possible, though, that the cause of phantom vibrating isn’t quite so terrifying; Alex Blaszczynski, the chairman of the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology, believes that the sensations might be real, speculating that they’re triggered by actual electrical signals briefly transmitted to our phones. It doesn’t seem as likely, although we can certainly hope that he’s right. Even if he is, the next time you get a phantom vibration might be a good time to step away from the smartphone and spend some time outside.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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