Phantom vibrations, and the beautiful sounds of silence

by Brandon Russell | April 12, 2015

Google Nexus 6 VS-6

Like a tick or nervous habit, I’d constantly reach for my phone expecting a notification—an email, message, anything. But oftentimes nothing would be there. Just a blank screen, with the obnoxiously cheery Slide to Unlock staring back at me.

It happened all the time, too, and it didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing. As long as I was awake, there was a 99-percent chance I’d experience a phantom vibration: that neurological phenomenon that tricks your brain into believing your device is buzzing. For a few years that was my life.

It’s my job to stay connected. In this line of work, news can break at any moment, which is why I need to constantly monitor feeds and email; if something comes in, I have to identify whether or not it needs to be addressed. That’s not a complaint! But the thing is, that always-on connection made me overwrought with anticipation.

On a particularly bad day, I’d think I felt a buzz, take my phone out, realize no notification actually came in, and repeat the same thing again and again. It became an addictive behavior, no doubt triggered by my need to be in touch—and even further enabled by what is otherwise a dream job. I had to be connected. There was no other option. And I’m not the only one who has experienced this. Most people do, and it’s becoming increasingly common as smartphone adoption spreads.

I went through a few different phases over time, until eventually descending into complete madness. In the beginning, I thought my phone’s vibration motor was faulty, buzzing every so often at its own leisure. A quick trip to the Apple store concluded that, no, my phone was fine. Then I thought my device was messing with me, somehow deriving pleasure by taking advantage of my obsessive need to check for notifications. After a while, the sensation even started happening when my phone wasn’t around, constantly nagging me like a needy child.

The phantom vibrations were so convincing, too. Just like when you think you hear a noise, you’re sure your phone just vibrated in your pocket. In reality, it’s actually your brain trained to expect a buzz, like Pavlov’s dog. Something—a noise, a word, a sight— triggers it. At least, that’s my unscientific explanation. Studies have found that phantom vibrations are indeed a thing, seemingly tied to our obsession with staying in touch at all times.

As it turns out, the more obsessive I was about staying connected, the more severe the “condition” became. What was at first a conscious struggle soon developed into a sub-conscious addiction. The moment I felt a vibration, phantom or not, I’d whip my phone out like some deranged animal—and I was helpless to stop it. It was a lot like when someone tells you not to look at something: All you want to do is look.

At its worst, these constant phantom vibrations gave me terrible anxiety. Even when my phone wasn’t around, I’d still awkwardly pat my leg in search of something I knew wasn’t there. And the feeling persisted no matter what. On days off, when I made an effort to “detox” from technology, I would be reminded while lying in bed, in the shower, or out with friends, the sensation becoming more frequent as the days went on. It was like an itch that couldn’t be scratched.

In the run up to CES in 2014, I finally made a decision: rather than continue to flounder in a sea of notifications and ghost buzzes, I silenced my phone completely. No ringer, no vibrations, like hitting the mute button on a TV; the picture is still there, you just can’t hear it. Turns out that was exactly what I needed.

Going into silent mode meant I was finally in control of my phone, not the other way around. Notifications still came streaming in, but I had the freedom to check them when I wanted to—not when my phone buzzed or rang. Adjusting certainly took some getting used to—I missed a lot of calls and text messages at first, because I simply had no idea they were coming in. But, after a while, I was able to adapt, until slowly the phantom vibrations disappeared completely. I haven’t gone back since.

As a corollary, I’m actually on my phone way less than I was before—something I’ve been actively trying to do for a long time. That means less mindlessly browsing the Web, or checking Instagram for the 100th time over a five minute span. A lot of times when I go out I’ll just leave my phone at home altogether, because why not? Work and personal separation is important—something I learned the hard way—even if a job like this does demand constant and immediate attention.

Part of me wants to turn vibrations back on, just to see what it would be like. But I think I’d rather be blissfully unaware my girlfriend is calling. Maybe that’s why I never hopped on the smartwatch train.



Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...