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The Outer Brain: Ten Amazing Ways the Skin and Brain Connect - Three

We all understand the joys of our always-wired world—the connections, the validations, the laughs … the info. … But we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs. 

Andrew Sullivan (2016) 


Phantom Vibration Syndrome and Hypervigilance

It’s a singularly modern problem, but also one rooted deep in human biology: Sometimes people feel their cell phones vibrating on their skin when there is no cell phone around. You’ve probably felt it yourself. In one study, 89 percent of participants had experienced these phantom vibrations. Victims have started calling the response “vibranxiety” or “ringxiety.”  Given that more than half the people on our planet carry a cellular phone, vibrate-mode usage is quite common. For a certain percentage, moderate to severe symptoms of phantom vibrations will result in symptoms that may need treatment.

I also have a personal connection: I was treating Kevin G., a 27-year-old who saw me for skin issues, when he mentioned a problem that was driving him a bit batty. “I constantly feel my pocket vibrating, and when I check I find that my cell phone is in another pocket, or sometimes it’s still in my car. Is there something I can do about this?” 

The answer is surprisingly complicated. For many researchers, including Jack Tsao, an assistant professor of neurology at the Uniform Services University in Maryland, the phenomenon has a physiological basis, related to phantom limb. Given that both skin cells and brain cells develop from the same kind of embryonic tissue (ectoderm), it makes sense that there are numerous ways that we can manifest those connections. In the case of an amputated leg, the neurons that control the leg’s movement and sensation still exist in the brain. The brain can also provide vibrations to your right thigh like a phantom limb.

That addresses the how. As for the why, Jon Kaas, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, studies phantom vibration using conditioning experiments. “People are rewarded when they are able to detect low amplitude vibrations, so they get better and better at responding,” Kaas says. That behavior may create an automatic behavior that increases nerve-brain connections and forms new pathways. William Barr, chief of neuropsychology at NYU School of Medicine, describes cell phones as virtual appendages, part of the “neuromatrix” of the body. “It's an interesting technological statement about society that our machines are becoming part of us,” he says. “If your cell phone is not there, you still feel like it is.”

The objective of a 2010 cross-sectional study by Rothberg et al of medical staff at an academic medical center was “to describe the prevalence of and risk factors for experiencing ‘phantom vibrations,’ the sensory hallucination sometimes experienced by people carrying pagers or cell phones when the device is not vibrating.”  Of 169 participants, 68 percent of cell phone users reported sometimes feeling the sensation of a vibrating cell phone when in fact the phone was not actually vibrating or not even being carried. Thirteen percent of the survey’s respondents reported feeling phantom cell phone vibrations at least once per day. A cell phone in a breast pocket was more likely to create phantom vibrations than on a belt clip.  

According to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, phantom cell phone vibrations are the products of expectation based on prior individual experience and that “phantom cell phone vibration results from no stimulus at all and hence qualifies as a full-blown hallucination.”   He states that if the person was examined in the brain scanner, it’s likely they would show activation of the appropriate site in the body map of the primary somatosensory cortex. 

The authors in Rothberg’s study write that “sensations are better characterized as tactile hallucinations, in which the brain perceives a sensation that is not actually present. Because the word hallucination carries a connotation of mental illness, whereas the phantom vibration syndrome appears to occur in a majority of normal individuals, and because so many are already using the term, it seems appropriate to let the popular appellation stand.”  These authors note that vibration syndrome may result from a misinterpretation of incoming sensory signals by the cerebral cortex. They note that, “In order to deal with the overwhelming amount of sensory input, the brain applies filters or schema based on what it expects to find, a process known as hypothesis guided search.”  In the case of phantom vibrations, the brain anticipates a call and misinterprets sensory input via this preconceived hypothesis. The sensory stimulus may include muscle contractions, pressure from clothing, or other sensory stimuli.

As Rothberg et al state, “Hallucinations are sometimes pathological, they often occur in normal individuals and are not limited to vibrations. Auditory hallucinations of cell phone ring tones also occur.” Given the high prevalence of phantom vibrations, the sensation points to normal brain mechanisms. Why do certain individuals experience phantom vibrations such as younger people and why are some body locations more susceptible?  Rothberg et al suggest that younger minds exhibit increased neural plasticity and more imaginary vibrations. The Rothberg study reflects that urgency may have a certain role in the answer. Pager vibrations require urgent attention. Just as new mothers my consistently imagine hearing their baby’s monitor go off, certain people feel obligated to constantly check their phones and pagers.  The vibrations stimulate the brain’s creation of a sensory memory for that particular phone location and this continues when enforced.

Ultimately, phantom vibration reflects the way the human body ignores certain stimuli and fixates on others. Sensations are not just sensations; expectations, experiences, and psychological states all influence the threshold for signal detection. As a result, there is no quick fix. The best strategy would seem to be simply to disable vibrate mode and eliminate skin-phone contact, causing the skin-brain connections to diminish over time.

I suggested that tactic to Kevin. On follow-up, he reported fewer episodes of phantom vibration, but he still had occasional symptoms. Perhaps the vibrations were an anticipatory signal now embedded in his nervous system—a persistent symptom of our deep dependency on our devices.

Here's another possible sensory addiction to add to the mix. Haptics is the science and technology of transmitting and understanding information through touch. In the case of a cell phone, a joystick, or myriad other devices, haptics are any type of technology that give you a tactile response when you do something. Haptic Touch is a specific form of haptic feedback that uses vibrations to mimic sensations like pressing a button or scrolling through a list when you do it on your screen. The click-click and vibration feel can make the user keep coming back for more and more.

Phantom vibration leads one to explore the trend in hypervigilance.  In a recent Ofcom study the researchers found that the average person spends 8 hours 21 minutes sleeping in a 24 hour period. But the average adult also clocks up an enormous 8 hours 41 minutes actively connected to media or digital communication, indicating that many people spend more than half of their waking hours peering into an electronic device.  

How far does this high-tech hypervigilance go?  According to a new HuffPost/YouGov survey, 63 percent of smartphone users age 18-29 admitted to drifting to sleeping with a cell phone, smartphone or tablet in their bed. Why not substitute a significant other for a smartphone? Not only does it disrupt sleep, it leads to even more hypervigilance that can become addictive and disruptive. 

Has the intoxicating noise of the phone as it demands your attention become a siren that draws you and your hypervigilent ego to its illuminated shores, despite the danger it may hold?  If you are tense and on high alert, it’s tough to get restful sleep: “Subconsciously, you’re expecting a call or text and this means your sleep will be lighter,” explains sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley.


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For more information, look at my YouTube series on the Brain-Skin Connections:

The Brain-Skin Connection Series - YouTube

Dr. Robert A. Norman

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