Virtually everyone who carries a cellphone with a vibrating mode in that handy pocket regularly experiences “phantom phone vibrations”(estimates are as high as 90%). Also called, a little frivolously, “ring-xiety”, “hypovibrochondria”, and “fauxcellarm”, the phenomenon has been the subject of considerable speculation for several years.  Apparently, too, the syndrome is at its highest amongst the younger crowd–including IB students–and amongst those who have an emotional connection with the use of their cell phone. It is a striking reminder that pareidolia—the inclination of the brain to create meaningful pattern even from random sensation or data–is not limited to the sense of sight, but can be found across the range of sense perception, including the sense of touch.

The internet is full of articles mulling over the incursions of technology into our very sensibilities and concluding, amongst other things, that the “syndrome” is “all in the head.” Well, perhaps it is–but not, according to research, in the sense that “the head” generates delusions from no immediate stimulate. It does so only in the sense that “the head” mediates and interprets external phenomena. Jon Snyder, in an article in Wired updates research by Beverly Hills clinicial psychologist David Laramie:

Hallucination may not be the most appropriate term, according to Laramie. “You’re misinterpreting something, but there is this external cue. You’re not totally making it up.” A compelling alternative, he suggests, is pareidolia. Essentially, it’s your brain getting a little bit carried away with its normally very useful talent for finding patterns in the world around you.

Finding patterns, perhaps–but from where? you may ask. The speculation here–and it is, so far, largely speculation–is that minute sensations created by clothing rubbing are enough to trigger the pattern-finding response.

Speculating on explanations

As is so often the case with these cognitive quirks that characterize amusing, irritating, or even dangerous human responses, researchers want an explanation (though some might claim, perhaps, that this in itself is a kind of pattern-finding!). As is so often the case, too, the (necessarily speculative) explanation connects our cognitive quirkiness to times when our ancestors were slouching around the savannahs of Africa: those of our ancestors who were quick to interpret the slightest sensations (sound, sight, or touch) as evidence of a lurking and peckish sabre-toothed-tiger were, naturally, more likely to survive and pass on their traits than the less sensitive type. The disadvantages of overinterpreting were few. Those, however, of under-interpreting were…. Well, let’s all use our imaginations on that one.

The “take home” messages?

  1. Sense perception as a way of knowing, though often felt to be the most reliable, has its perils. As the Course Companion observes (page 89), the point of looking at these tricks of the brain in the act of perceiving is to remind us all that “This kind of seemingly simple and involuntary filling in of missing information to form a recognizable pattern” underlies the fundamentally interpretive nature of so much of our sense perception. With the grasp of pattern so swift — before the logical mind can get itself into action — sense perception could be regarded as working together with intuition as a way of knowing.
  1. The particular kind of misinterpretation of the senses called pareidolia is not limited to the sense of sight. Nor is it limited to conspiracy theorists or u.f.o-oligists who comb through photos and videos for evidence in support of their alarming (or disarming) theories. Nor is it limited to extremely credulous people – who, in a most infamous case, were willing to spend $28,000 on a grilled cheese sandwich in which they could “see” the face of the Virgin Mary!
  1. One of the most common sense misperceptions of modern technological life is particularly common with students– including I.B. students. But will knowing of this research change your reaction to your cell phone when it seems to vibrate? Will it at least reassure you if you answer it – and nobody’s there?

One of the most delicious paradoxes in our quest for knowledge is that sense perception is both the way of knowing many of us trust most and, simultaneously, a way of knowing we recognize to be often untrustworthy. Seeing may, indeed, be believing. But is it really knowing?