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Many of us have this experience.  We don’t have our phone with us, and suddenly we feel a vibration in our pocket and begin looking for the source of the vibration, the phone that isn’t there.  In this article, one author discusses the psychological ramifications of phantom vibrations and what this means about our lives in a technological age.


mindfulness and cell phonesA few years ago I was sitting at lunch talking to a friend when my brain picked up a subtle buzz in my pocket. I reached for the phone to see what the message might be and lo and behold, my phone wasn’t there, it was sitting right on the table. I was being visited by a phantom vibration.

If you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone. It’s apparently a widespread phenomenon. But what does it mean to our daily life?

In a recent study, 89 percent of undergraduates experienced phantom vibrations about once every two weeks. That’s fascinating, but even more fascinating as it applies to our mental health is that people who are more reactive to messages on their phones also had a higher rate of phantom vibrations than those who weren’t.

The study suggests that targeting people’s reactivity to Smartphone messaging can help reduce these vibrations.

In my book, the very experience of phantom vibrations has widespread implications in helping us understand the relationship between our brain, perception and why we do what we do in life.

What do I mean?

This study shows us that people who use phones more and are more reactive experience more vibrations that are not even there. It’s not too far of a leap to say then that people who practice and repeat certain negative ways of seeing things, are more likely to see people and the world negatively, and it’s highly possible that their perception is a phantom or something that’s not based in reality.

Remember that phrase, “neurons that fire together, wire together”? Well, here’s another example of that to the extreme; the neurons are wiring together to create a perception that may not actually exist. We can also look at other repetitive things in our environment that may create phantom perception.

Does it matter that it’s a phantom vibration or that the phone isn’t in the pocket? If we feel the vibration, we feel the vibration, it exists in our experience.

We can use this phantom vibration research to our advantage. If we increase experiences that have to do with kindness, compassion, forgiveness, altruism, openness and other approaches that have high correlations with happiness and well-being, can we create the effect of experiencing more of this even in the face of difficulty when our brains would normally default to the negative?

Neuroscience, learning theory and probably many people’s experience is showing us the answer is yes. A thick thread that weaves through The Now Effect says that when we intentionally practice and repeat things in life they become automatic.

And so it is: phantoms that are coming to us through our technology are once again showing us that we are active participants in our own health and well-being.

Allow this to be a moment of taking a few deep breaths, rebooting your nervous system, and checking in with the things in your environment that are passively influencing the way you see yourself and others.

What small actions can you begin to practice to shape the kind of vibrations you feel in daily life?

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Phone photo available from Shutterstock

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions at Work App, the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations. Join The Now Effect Community for free Daily Now Moments, Weekly Updates and tips and free access to a Live Monthly Online Event with Elisha Goldstein, PhD.