That Phantom Phone

Hallucinatory cell syndrome is increasingly common

Hallucinations aren’t solely the province of psychosis and acid trips. The truth is, we all hallucinate.

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Ever wake up and notice a spider crawling up the wall, only to discover it’s nothing more than chipped paint? Or have you place your hand under cold water that you think is warm? It feels hot for a second, doesn’t it?

These are all basic hallucinations we experience, and technology has added a new one to the roster: phantom vibration syndrome.

Also called hallucinatory vibration syndrome, it refers to the experience of thinking your phone is vibrating against your skin even when it isn’t.

The hallucinatory cellphone syndrome can be terrifying to anyone unfamiliar with the experience.

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Dr. Michael Rothberg, Cleveland Clinic vice chairman for research, told LifeZette the syndrome is “extremely common” and not dangerous.

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“People have hallucinations all the time,” Rothberg said. “They just don’t realize they’re hallucinating.”

Those hallucinations are mired in evolution. We’ve evolved to recognize patterns as a means of evading predators and unsafe situations.

“If you weren’t able to put patterns together quickly, you probably would have been eaten by something,” Rothberg said.

And sometimes, the brain fills in details to help, even if those are erroneous. As Rothberg said, “The penalty for imagining a stick is a snake is far lower than the penalty for imagining a snake is a stick.”

He said the phantom vibration syndrome likely stems from that.

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While the experience might be slightly unpleasant — though 2 percent of the 176 responders in a study Rothberg helped conduct on the syndrome found it extremely bothersome — it isn’t physically dangerous. That said, it can terrifying to anyone who’s unfamiliar with the experience.

Melanie Grossman of San Francisco, a healthy, active 72-year-old social worker, began feeling a strange sensation in her chest. Worried it was atrial fibrillation — an irregular, rapid heartbeat that can slow blood flow and lead to further health problems — she visited a cardiologist.

The days leading up to the appointment were stressful, as the strange sensation continuously reappeared. But the doctor, stumped, found her in perfect health. As Grossman prepared to leave, she had a strange thought.

“I know this sounds weird,” she told the doctor, “but some people think cellphones aren’t good for them.”

“When I said that, his eyes lit up like ‘Bingo!’” Grossman told LifeZette.

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Grossman carried her cellphone around in a jacket pocket over her chest. That strange sensation was nothing more than a hallucination, and the feeling receded as soon as she began carrying her phone elsewhere.

The phenomenon is not yet well-studied, but Rothberg said it probably happens more to people who are “really interested in their phones.” That said, almost everyone is likely to experience it and shouldn’t worry.

If you’re in the 2 percent who are bothered by this, erasing it is as simple as setting your phone to ring, or not carrying it on your body. Finally, you can just acknowledge what’s happening.

“It’s a hallucination that goes away when you confront the reality.”

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