Almost everyone with a cell phone has felt it before. There is a distinct vibration against your thigh signaling that you've received a text, call, or email. You pull your phone out to see who it is, and there are no notifications. You've just experienced phantom vibration syndrome.
There's no need to go to a doctor just yet. Almost 80 percent of people who own a cell phone have experienced this strange sensation, which is also called "ringxiety." In fact, an even earlier version of this phenomenon existed with pagers before cell phones were widespread. Here's a Dilbert comic from 1996 that basically predicted the common phenomenon of phantom vibrations.
Now, phantom vibration syndrome is a very clinical-sounding term, but don't be alarmed. You likely don't have an actual medical condition just because you think you felt or heard a vibration that didn't happen.
Dr. Michael Rothberg writes about this issue, and he prefers to call phantom vibrations a "tactile hallucination" instead of a syndrome. The basic theory on why we feel these phantom vibrations is that we're expecting a call or text, so we're waiting for the vibration to occur. Then the cerebral cortex feels a stimulus such as a muscle contraction or clothing moving over skin and misinterprets that as the phone vibrating.
The phenomenon is much more common among college students, with research finding that nearly 9 out of 10 undergraduates have experienced a phantom vibration. Research also shows that being overly involved in one's phone increases the occurrence of the phantom vibrations. The idea is that the more you're waiting for the vibration the more likely you are to think you feel or hear one.
Because phantom vibration syndrome is not a real medical syndrome, there is no treatment. However, there are ways to reduce it. Carrying your phone in a different position could help reduce phantom vibrations.
For instance, if you have a high number of phantom vibrations with your phone in your pants pocket, moving it to a purse or shirt pocket could help. The thigh is especially prone to phantom vibrations because of the way phones rub against muscles when you bend your legs.
Taking your phone off of vibrate also helps. Because much of the phenomenon is a response to the expectation of the vibration, when you switch your phone to mute or ring, your brain stops anticipating the vibration. This in itself can stop the phantom vibrations from occurring. Of course, then you might hear a phantom ring.
Another suggestion is to simply try to distance yourself from your phone. If you occupy yourself with other things, your brain will slowly stop trying to sense vibrations so keenly. You'll still be able to hear or feel the real vibration, but your brain will stop giving false alarms once it has something else to focus on.
This strange phenomenon seems likely to continue gaining attention as more people become consumed in their phones. The existence of phantom vibrations shows how much this dependence on cell phones can affect the rest of our lives. Although phantom vibrations are harmless by themselves, they indicate that we may be obsessing too much over staying plugged in.