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Why Do People Feel Phantom Cellphone Vibrations?

Jason's Phone
Jason's Phone

Let’s picture a typical moment in my day: I’m minding my own business, with my iPhone in my back pocket. Suddenly, my left cheek is shaking as the phone vibrates and does the bzzt, bzzt, bzzt-ing dance of its people on my backside. I check the phone, and there’s nothing. No call. No text. No email. No one has moved in Words With Friends or liked my pictures on Instagram. Nothing that would have made the phone vibrate, but I swear I felt it.

I don’t suffer these mysterious vibrations alone. In one study into the phenomenon - variously dubbed “phantom ringing,” “phantom vibration syndrome” and vibranxiety - phantom phone vibrations were experienced by 68% of the people surveyed, with 87% of those feeling them weekly, and 13% daily.

What is it that plagues our pockets?

The phantom vibrations have only recently gotten the attention of scientists, and while they’ve offered up opinions and hypotheses, peer-reviewed research on the ghostly buzzes is scarce.

Alex Blaszczynski, chairman of the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney, thinks the vibrating sensation is triggered by electrical activity. "I expect it's related to some of the electrical signals coming through in a transmission, touching on the surrounding nerves, giving a feeling of a vibration,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald, with the caveat that he hasn’t conducted any studies on the vibrations. If he’s right, it would mean vibes are not phantom, but a real sensation - a physical stimulation similar to what happens when your phone is near a speaker and you hear that weird buzzing sound as it does a "hand shake" with a cell tower and gives off some electromagnetic interference.

Anticipation

Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University offers a different idea in his book, iDisorder. He says that since we’re almost always anticipating some sort of technological interaction, especially with our smartphones, we inevitably interpret some unrelated stimuli, like our pants rubbing against our leg or a chair dragging against the floor, as a phone call.

The only published study on phantom vibrations that we were able to find focused on gauging vibranxiety’s prevalence, and didn’t examine the cause. But the researchers offered an educated guess similar to Rosen’s. Michael Rothberg, a clinician investigator at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, who conducted the survey mentioned earlier, says that vibranxiety might be caused by the misinterpretation of sensory signals in our brain.

“In order to deal with an overwhelming amount of sensory input,” Rothberg and his team say in their study, “the brain applies filters or schema based on what it expects to find, a process known as hypothesis guided search.” With the phantom vibrations, the brain sometimes misinterprets sensory input according to the preconceived hypothesis that a vibrating sensation will be coming from the phone. In other words, it seems smartphone users are just so primed for, and attentive to, the sensation of their phone going off that they simply experience the occasional false alarm.

Make It Stop!

Phantom vibrations don’t appear to cause any harm, but if the mild annoyance is too much for you, they can be stopped. Thirty-nine percent of the people in Rothberg’s survey - all medical staff who had a phone or pager on them all day - were able to stop the vibrations either by taking the device off vibrate mode and using the audible ringer, changing the location of the device on their person, or using a different device (success rates were 75%, 63% and 50%, respectively).

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Big Questions
Do Bacteria Have Bacteria?
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Drew Smith:

Do bacteria have bacteria? Yes.

We know that bacteria range in size from 0.2 micrometers to nearly one millimeter. That’s more than a thousand-fold difference, easily enough to accommodate a small bacterium inside a larger one.

Nothing forbids bacteria from invading other bacteria, and in biology, that which is not forbidden is inevitable.

We have at least one example: Like many mealybugs, Planococcus citri has a bacterial endosymbiont, in this case the β-proteobacterium Tremblaya princeps. And this endosymbiont in turn has the γ-proteobacterium Moranella endobia living inside it. See for yourself:

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)
Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)

I don’t know of examples of free-living bacteria hosting other bacteria within them, but that reflects either my ignorance or the likelihood that we haven’t looked hard enough for them. I’m sure they are out there.

Most (not all) scientists studying the origin of eukaryotic cells believe that they are descended from Archaea.

All scientists accept that the mitochondria which live inside eukaryotic cells are descendants of invasive alpha-proteobacteria. What’s not clear is whether archeal cells became eukaryotic in nature—that is, acquired internal membranes and transport systems—before or after acquiring mitochondria. The two scenarios can be sketched out like this:


The two hypotheses on the origin of eukaryotes:

(A) Archaezoan hypothesis.

(B) Symbiotic hypothesis.

The shapes within the eukaryotic cell denote the nucleus, the endomembrane system, and the cytoskeleton. The irregular gray shape denotes a putative wall-less archaeon that could have been the host of the alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont, whereas the oblong red shape denotes a typical archaeon with a cell wall. A: archaea; B: bacteria; E: eukaryote; LUCA: last universal common ancestor of cellular life forms; LECA: last eukaryotic common ancestor; E-arch: putative archaezoan (primitive amitochondrial eukaryote); E-mit: primitive mitochondrial eukaryote; alpha:alpha-proteobacterium, ancestor of the mitochondrion.

The Archaezoan hypothesis has been given a bit of a boost by the discovery of Lokiarcheota. This complex Archaean has genes for phagocytosis, intracellular membrane formation and intracellular transport and signaling—hallmark activities of eukaryotic cells. The Lokiarcheotan genes are clearly related to eukaryotic genes, indicating a common origin.

Bacteria-within-bacteria is not only not a crazy idea, it probably accounts for the origin of Eucarya, and thus our own species.

We don’t know how common this arrangement is—we mostly study bacteria these days by sequencing their DNA. This is great for detecting uncultivatable species (which are 99 percent of them), but doesn’t tell us whether they are free-living or are some kind of symbiont. For that, someone would have to spend a lot of time prepping environmental samples for close examination by microscopic methods, a tedious project indeed. But one well worth doing, as it may shed more light on the history of life—which is often a history of conflict turned to cooperation. That’s a story which never gets old or stale.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats 'Blep'?
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As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
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If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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