Isabel Lee

Picture this. It’s summer — bzz — and you’re relaxing. Maybe you’re on your lunch break sweating through your business casual. Maybe it’s the weekend, and you’re lounging by the pool — bzz — or you’re — bzz — outside connecting with — bzz — nature in some ancient, mystic woods. You — bzz — hear a — bzz — sound, and you feel something — bzz. A text from mom? Finally, a response from that job you applied for last summer? An email from The New Yorker asking if you could take over the zine? You check your phone as soon as possible, and … nothing.

If you’ve reached for a dormant phone, an empty pocket or your naked thigh expecting a message, you’re not alone. Blame “phantom vibration syndrome.”

The phenomenon was first documented in a 1996 “Dilbert” strip. The titular Dilbert — prone on a therapist’s couch — laments that he feels his pager vibrating even when he isn’t wearing it; his therapist explains that there is no cure to “phantom-pager syndrome,” and that the phenomenon is common among technology workers. In the 23 years since, we’ve all become technology workers, technology players, livers, lovers, breathers, sleepers — but, most importantly, technology workers.

The first medical study of phantom vibration syndrome — as it would come to be called — was published in 2007. Researchers at Alliant International University surveyed 290 undergraduates, all of whom carried a mobile phone, asking them a number of questions about whether they had experienced vibrations, how often, with what degree of intensity, and whether they had tried to stop them.

The results were astounding: Nearly 90 percent of respondents had experienced phantom vibrations with over a tenth experiencing them on a daily basis. The researchers also drew connections between personality traits and susceptibility to phantom vibrations, particularly neuroticism. Other studies confirmed similar trends. In one survey of medical students during a yearlong hospital internship, 96 percent of students experienced phantom vibrations on a regular basis. This number, however, fell to just 54 percent two weeks after the end of the internship. This change gives us insight into just what might be behind these ghostly buzzes.

Paredolia, the inclination to make sense of otherwise ambiguous stimuli, is universal. You do it all the time. Look at this: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. What do you see? A few dashes and a Japanese character, or a face? Faster than you can identify (—_—) as two em-dashes and an underscore, you see it as a face, and a face with emotion at that. In the 1970s, conspiracy theorists believed that the “Face on Mars” captured by the Viking 1 orbiter was proof of extraterrestrial life. The “face” turned out to be a pile of rocks on the planet’s surface, and yet, looking at the image now, it’s still nearly impossible not to feel like it’s looking right back at you. In short: We see what we want to see, and we want to see what we recognize.

While kitschy names ascribed to the phenomenon — ringxiety and fauxcellarm — shroud phantom vibrations in some youthful obsession with communication, with selfies and with the Instagram, the phenomenon is rooted in something deeper: the brain itself. When you’re expecting a call, text or some other notification, your brain is in a state of anticipation. It knows what a call sounds like, it knows what a phone vibration feels like and it’s primed to recognize those inputs.

It’s something called “hypothesis-guided search.” The guided search model presents two basic forms of interpretation: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down processing occurs when a stimulus is anticipated; the brain is then prepared to recognize and process the input. Engaged in predictive perception — even subconsciously — the brain is able to more effectively process and identify stimuli. However, the power of this expectation can manipulate both how we perceive stimuli and whether we perceive it at all.

A study out of the University of Michigan found that individuals with higher levels of “attachment anxiety” to their phones experience phantom vibrations far more than those unattached to their phones. Just as new mothers often hear the phantom cries of their newborn children, you might not notice the subtle ripple of your thigh muscle when you stand up if it didn’t feel just like your phone vibrating in your pocket. Michael Rothberg, a leading investigator of phantom vibrations, classifies these as “tactile hallucinations.” Your brain, waiting to hear back about that seminar or expecting a text from your boo, is primed to take anything that might even remotely resemble a notification — the feeling of clothing on your skin, the rumbling of your stomach or the hustle and bustle of Blue State Coffee — and register it as a notification before you can even say “Gen Z.”

We’re all hallucinating, and it’s not the Yale™ mushrooms in the dining halls — it’s Yale.

For as much as phantom vibrations are a product of synapses and cognitive processes, they’re a symptom of the modern world. Young people experience mental illnesses like anxiety and depression at rates unseen since the Great Depression. Our era is one defined by precarity, by short-term-temporary-associate-assistant-adjunct gigs, by constant wheeling and dealing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median employment length for workers aged 24 to 34 is a measly 2.8 years; Yale is the longest gig any of us will have for a while. And, given that millenials are less likely to have health insurance than any other generation, we can only hope that the fire in our pants is just Tinder.

Our bodies and brains do not exist in a vacuum. We’re big sponges, constantly internalizing and adapting to the world around us. When we internalize the symptoms of the 21st century, it’s easy to then internalize the cause, internalize the blame. You’re not some phone-addicted Zoomer. Well, maybe you are, but it’s not your fault. It’s no mystery that staring at screens all day can manipulate our bodies: our eyes, our wrists and our waistlines. The world — now, more than ever — demands our constant attention. Is it all that ridiculous for our brains to expect something in return?

Our phones are our proxies to the world around us — our friends, our family, our classes, our job opportunities, our futures — and having the world in our pockets, communicating one — bzz — at a time is exhausting. But, in lieu of receding into the woods and becoming a hobbit, there are ways to fight back. If your phone allows you to, customize your notifications such that the “important ones” come in rapid-fire, totally unmistakable bursts. (If your thigh muscle twitches in rapid-fire, totally unmistakable bursts, please see a doctor.) When every notification is both urgent and frivolous, life-determining and totally inconsequential, every notification must be checked. The modern world is built on precarity, and the illegibility of the — bzz — whether phantom or not, is a key tool to reproducing this anxiety. Sure, it’s a small step, but: First we take on our notifications, then the world (-■_■).

Eric Krebs | eric.krebs@yale.edu .