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June 15, 2007

BehindTheMedspeak: Is that a cellphone in your pocket or...?


I recently learned a new term: "hypothesis-guided search."

It's a psychological theory "that describes the selective monitoring of physical sensations," according to a June 12, 2007 USA Today article by Angela Haupt about the increasing incidence of reports of vibrating cellphones — with no one on the other end.

Here's the story.

    Good vibrations? Bad? None at all?

    Some call it "phantom vibration syndrome." Others prefer "vibranxiety" — the feeling when you answer your vibrating cellphone, only to find it never vibrated at all.

    "It started happening about three years ago, when I first got a cellphone," says Canadian Steven Garrity, 28, of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. "I'd be sitting on the couch and feel my phone start to vibrate, so I'd reach down and pull it out of my pocket. But the only thing ringing was my thigh."

    Though no known studies have analyzed what may cause spontaneous buzzing, anecdotes such as Garrity's ring true with the public.

    Spurred by curiosity, Garrity, a Web developer, described the recurring false alarms on his blog. The response was not imaginary: More than 30 cellphone users reported that they, too, experienced phantom vibrations.

    "I ended up hearing from a lot of people who said, 'Hey, the exact same thing happens to me,' " Garrity says. "And it was somewhat comforting, because it made me think I wasn't insane, after all."

    Some who experienced recurring phantom vibrations wondered whether the phenomenon had physical roots: Was it caused by nerve damage or muscle memory?

    But experts say the false alarms simply demonstrate how easily habits are developed.

    Psychologically, the key to deciphering phantom vibrations is "hypothesis-guided search," a theory that describes the selective monitoring of physical sensations, says Jeffrey Janata, director of the behavioral medicine program at University Hospitals in Cleveland. It suggests that when cellphone users are alert to vibrations, they are likely to experience sporadic false alarms, he says.

    "You come armed with this template that leads you to be attentive to sensations that represent a cellphone vibrating," Janata says. "And it leads you to over-incorporate non-vibratory sensations and attribute them to the idea that you're receiving a phone call."

    Alejandro Lleras, a sensation and perception professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, adds that learning to detect rings and vibrations is part of a perceptual learning process.

    "When we learn to respond to a cellphone, we're setting perceptual filters so that we can pick out that (ring or vibration), even under noisy conditions," Lleras says. "As the filter is created, it is imperfect, and false alarms will occur. Random noise is interpreted as a real signal, when in fact, it isn't."

    Phantom cellphone vibrations also can be explained by neuroplasticity — the brain's ability to form new connections in response to changes in the environment.

    When cellphone users regularly experience sensations, such as vibrating, their brains become wired to those sensations, Janata says.

    "Neurological connections that have been used or formed by the sensation of vibrating are easily activated," he says. "They're over-solidified, and similar sensations are incorporated into that template. They become a habit of the brain."

    Cellphone company spokesmen, meanwhile, say they are not aware of any consumer complaints about phantom vibrations. Cellphones cannot sporadically vibrate on their own, says Mark Siegel of AT&T, formerly Cingular Wireless.

    "Perhaps in the mind of the cellphone user only," he says.

    But Rob Whitehouse, vice president of communications at University Hospitals, insists the phantom vibrations he experiences each day are simply proof of how important constant communication is.

    "It's some psychological expression of my need to always be connected," he says. "It's like when e-mail first came out, and we constantly checked our inboxes, because getting a new message was so exciting.

    "I like that better than 'I'm crazy,' anyway."



Now I have a name for what I had during my second year of med school when pathology was the primary subject.

Every week I was sure I had yet another fatal illness, with symptoms identical to those accompanying failure of whatever organ system we were studying.

I called it suggestibility gone wild but what the heck did I know?

June 15, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink


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That's so true; I see people furtively checking often.

If a person has their phone set to "stun", and it goes off it their pocket, they get an absent expression on their face. I call it "beepilepsy".

If they only THINK it vibrated, that would be a case of "petit call".


Posted by: mick | Jun 16, 2007 2:48:48 PM

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