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Phantom Vibration Syndrome – UPDATE


At the beginning of this century, during a business lunch an associates began to rise and excuse himself to answer his cell phone, courteously set to ‘vibrate.’  He deftly slid the phone from its holster, flipped it open to view the incoming number, only to freeze halfway out of his seat. He hovered for a split second as he stared at the phone’s screen. Settling back into his seat, he returned the phone to the holster with the flair of a gunfighter.

To be certain of what I suspected, I asked, “Did they hang up?” He responded, “Nope — just thought I felt the phone vibrate,” once again validating what was then a new phenomenon I would soon dub, “Phantom Vibration Syndrome (PVS).”

All six at that table worked out of their cars and were subjected to a merciless onslaught of phone calls. Though each admitted to experiencing PVS, they quickly shrugged it off, changing the subject, almost as if in denial of symptomatic manifestations of a disorder. Admittedly, frequently attempting to answer a dark and silent cell phone could make one feel a bit neurotic…at least back then.

I wondered how widespread the issue might be.  Long time ‘heavy cell phone’ users were still a minority; but pagers were ubiquitous, and each packed a vibration powerful enough to send itself careening across a table top under its own power.  Convinced there had to be many who had issues with PVS, I used a full half-hour of CompuServe Internet search time, which produced only three references specific to cellphone or pager vibration issues.

Justin Hall reported, “The unsettling thing is, when I don’t have the thing in my pocket, I feel phantom vibrations. My leg remembers the incoming call feeling! I reach down instinctively to discover I’m wearing pajamas and I have no phone call.”

A second person wrote under a screen pseudonym, “…it’s been three years since the last time I’ve been without a wireless phone on my person…and I think I’m going through some kind of withdrawal symptoms. I keep feeling phantom vibrations in my empty pocket.”

Arie Gamliel complained online, “It [isn’t] funny at all. It’s gotten to the point where I feel phantom vibrations on my side, especially when I don’t have the darn thing strapped to my belt.”

In hopes of generating some discussion, I submitted an article to The New Pittsburgh Courier, “Phantom Vibration Syndrome.”  It was published ( December, 2003) and garnered a tiny bit of attention, made its way around the internet, then vanished — but not without a trace.

Nearly a decade later and half a planet away, the term and acronym had made its way to Australia as Macquarie Dictionary’s 2012’s “Word of the Year” according to  Today there is plenty of open discussion on the pseudo-oscillations of PVS…and amazingly little on the effects of radio waves on the human head, which was of much greater concern back then.

Fast forward to today, those pesky psychosomatic calls are arguably the most widespread affliction directly attributable to wireless technology, the troubling side-effect of phone etiquette. Without question, PVS is endemic, no longer a rare happenstance of vibrating road warriors.

But we shrug it off still, despite the as yet unresolved question of whether it is psychosomatic or physical. It is true that we are visually and aurally over-stimulated, as well as mentally and emotionally taxed by the overload on communication channels. Perhaps the last bastion of privacy had been breached by opening the way for others to ‘reach out and touch’ one another in a deeply physical way, one that literally rattles us to the bone.

My theory then was that switching to “vibrate” triggered a subconscious “last stand,” forcing the mind to defiantly resort to guerrilla warfare, deploying an inner-child who rings our mental doorbell then runs away, a subconscious push-back against the resonant physicality in the phone’s invasion of privacy.

A newer theory on causation is rooted in neuro-psychology, that PVS is a form of unconscious bias, believe it or not.   The underlying Signal Detection Theory explains it as an unconscious choice we make to never miss a message, thus our brain and body conspire to create intermittent reminders that we may get a call soon, thereby keeping us attuned to the real deal when it comes. In contrast to a rebellion, neuroscience argues we’re complicit in our own delusion that people constantly want to and need to talk to us.

Could PVS be far less complex than that, a purely physical reaction to a mild but repeated over-stimulation of tissue? Sigmund Freud did say, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Maybe its simple nerve damage from repeated tactile electromagnetic and RF assault on the same tissue.

Either way, should we be concerned about what our mind or body may be trying to tell us by the aggravating imaginary emanations from belts, pockets, purses and even pajamas?

Whether PVS is the result of tissue over-stimulation, neuro-psychological unconscious bias, a genuine mental health issue, or all of the above, this persistent phenomenon indicates that we long ago crossed the line in the sands of privacy in this “always on” society. Our minds and bodies conspire to ensure a continual state of alert and unceasing vigilance, keeping poised for action as we mentally and emotionally stand all along the watchtower.

If PVS is a signal that we’re not in control of our own accessibility and Power-Off buttons, it may also be a sign that we may not have gotten smarter nearly as fast as our phones have.


Copyright 2013 Robert D. Jones  – All Rights Reserved

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