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Nomophobia and phantom vibrations: How cellphones have changed the brain

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 1 2013 2:30 p.m. MDT

Phantom vibrations and the anxiety of not having a cellphone around are causing the brain to function differently.

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Nomophobia and hypovibochondria or "ringxiety": The fear of being without contact of a mobile phone and anxiety caused by a cellphone ring.

Those terms have become more prominent for Americans with the development of cellphones over the last decade, as well as phantom vibrations, and it's changing how the brain reacts.

Phantom vibrations are the feeling that a cellphone is vibrating when it's not. In the last few years, phantom vibrations have become so common that studies have been devoted to figuring out how the brain "creates" the vibrations.

A study in 2010 looked at the psychological phenomenon among medical staff at the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass. Although only 68 percent of the staff reported feeling phantom vibrations, the majority started after having a device for only a month.

In 2012, a research team from Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne looked at the same psychological connection in an attempt to understand why 89 percent of undergraduate students surveyed were experiencing these phantom vibrations about once every two weeks on average. However, some reported feeling the non-existent vibrations on a daily basis.

The research suggests that the brain is starting to correlate phone vibrations with simple reactions like an itch.

"If you'd ask me 10 years ago or maybe even five years ago if I felt an itch beneath where my pocket of my jeans were, and asked me what I would do, I'd reach down and scratch it because it was probably a little itch caused by the neurons firing," Dr. Larry Rosen, a research psychologist who studies how technology affects our minds, told NPR.

However, with Americans becoming more dependent on their cellphones and technology, instead of addressing the itch, the tingle triggers people to reach for their cellphone or device in their pocket.

"We're seeing a lot of what looks like compulsive behavior, obsessive behavior. People who are constantly picking up their phone look like they have an obsession. They don't look much different from someone who's constantly washing their hands. I'm not saying that it is an obsession, but I'm saying that it could turn into one, very easily," Rosen said.

To avoid the anxiety connected to nomophobia and "ringxiety," Rosen suggested people should disconnect themselves from their technology for short periods of time: 30 minutes to an hour a day.

Email: crenouard@deseretnews.com

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