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The philosophy of phones: why it might not matter that you can't stop checking yours

A new paper on phantom phone vibration syndrome suggests that we rethink our negative approach to technology and its effects on us. 

Use a smartphone? Then it’s pretty likely that you suffer from something called “phantom phone vibration syndrome”, which roughly translates as “thinking your phone is vibrating or ringing when it’s not”. It also ties into related behaviours, like repeatedly checking your phone, even when you know it hasn’t lit up. 

In fact, phantom vibrations aren't really a syndrome. Researchers use the term because they don't really know what the phantom vibrations are, or what causes them. And yet the limited research into the phenomenon shows that somewhere between 70 and 90 per cent of regular phone users exhibit these strange, impulsive behaviours.  

The weirdest part, though, is that most of us don’t seem to mind. In both a 2012 study of almost 300 undergraduates and a 2010 study of 169 medical professionals, only around 2 per cent found the phantom vibrations “very bothersome”.  This hasn’t stopped researchers from worrying, of course – most studies try to connect the behaviours to a change in brain function brought on by technology.

Larry Rosen, a psychology professor who has written extensively on the subject, coined the term "iDisorders" to describe the ways technology may be impacting our psychological health. On phantom phone vibrations, he has this to say: “We are now so primed with anxiety…. that we misinterpret a simple signal from our neurons located below our pocket as an incoming message rather than as an itch that needs to be scratched.”

It is very tempting to charge our constant interaction with technology with a general increase in anxiety and decrease in attention spans. In the summer 2008 issue of the Atlantic, technology writer Nicholas Carr threw his hat into the ring with the headline “Is Google making us stupid?”:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.”

But Robert Rosenberger, a professor in the philosophy of technology, has a slightly different take. In a new paper on phantom phone vibrations,  he suggests that we view technology as an extension of our existing senses, rather than a damaging new development somehow divorced from all the other technologies – from flints to Facebook – which we've used throughout history. 

“There are ways to talk about technology without reducing everything to brain rewiring talk,” he tells me over the phone. “Yes, you’re brain’s involved, but your brain’s involved in everything. There's a weird scientific legitimacy that comes from saying it's changing your brain, as opposed to just claiming it’s changing your behaviour or society. If I'm teaching you to drive, we wouldn't talk about brains. I would just say, OK, take hold of the steering wheel. ”

To counter this type of knee-jerk thinking, his paper on phantom vibrations, published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, includes a section on the philosophy of experience and phenomenology. Philosopher Martin Heidigger, for example, wrote about humans’ use of technology in the 60s, and noted that where we use technology as a tool, it simply becomes part of the user’s experience (he uses eyeglasses as an example). As Rosenberger paraphrases in his paper, “a user may remain barely aware of the device itself as it is used. Instead, it is whatever the device is being used for—whatever work is being accomplished with that device—that stands forward with significance.”

In this formulation, it’s not the, phone, glasses or book which are at the centre of our experience– it’s the communication from a friend, view of the sea, or story that our brains are really concerned with.  Rosenberger describes phones as a “mediating technology”, used to do the same old thing we always do: communicate.  

So how do phantom phone vibrations fit in? Rosenberger argues that they’re simply perceived by our brains as a “bid for attention made by another person”.  Vibrations in a pocket are easily suggested by fabric rubbing together, or a faint noise. Most of us who have experienced this have, too, thought we heard our name in a crowd, or spun round at a noise that turned out to be meaningless.

Personality seems to tie into the prevelance of the vibrations, too. Studies have found variously that those who are more neurotic are more likely to find the phantom vibrations annoying, while conscientious people tended to experience them less, and be less bothered by them. In one study, researchers tracked the phantom vibrations among medical students on different rotations, and found that students experienced more phantom vibrations during their year of internship, and far less once the internship ends.

This final piece of evidence backs up something Rosenberger put to me thus: “We could think of these phantom vibrations as a kind of bad habit – not a very bad one, as it’s not actually bothersome – which might be a more useful analogy than a rewired brain.” Yes, we check our phones a lot – but the effects can disappear quickly once the reasons for checking (emergencies while working on a hospital ward, for example) disappear.

Indeed, as communication devices become more wearable, they're likely to become even more embedded in our consciousness. Because Apple Watches, for example, don’t need to be physically taken out and looked at, the checking process is far less distracting, as this post on wearables from product designer Luke Wroblewski demonstrates.

We may be addicted to our phones, and we may check them too much – but if our technology is just an extension of ourselves, we’re only as bad as Charlie Brown, obsessively checking his postbox for Valentines, or a late commuter, straining for the sound of their bus rounding the corner. The technology and tools may change, but we're only as neurotic and anxious as we've always been. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Why have men become so lonely – and how does it affect their health?

New findings show the consequences of having a lonely heart.

Go out and get some friends. No, seriously. Hop on the Tube and act faux-interested in the crap-looking book your fellow commuter is reading, even if it's on their Kindle. Chances are it's better than the one in your bag, and they're probably a decent human being and just as lonely, like you and me.

A new slate of facts and figures are showing just how widespread loneliness, is while simultaneously being amazingly terrible for your health.

Research led by Steven Cole from the medicine department at University of California, Los Angeles is showing the cellular mechanisms behind the long known pitfalls of loneliness. Perceived social isolation (PSI) – the scientific term for loneliness –increases the exposure to chronic diseases and even mortality for individuals across the world.

The authors examined the effects of loneliness on leukocytes, also known as white blood cells, which are produced from stem cells in the bone marrow and are critical to the immune system and defending the body against bacteria and viruses. The results showed loneliness increases signalling in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for controlling our fight-or-flight responses, and also affects the production of white blood cells.

Recently, the Movember Foundation, which focuses on men's health and wellbeing, carried out a survey with the help of YouGov investigating friendship and loneliness amongst men. The results are alarming, with only 11 per cent of single men across the spectrum in their early 20s to late-middle age saying they had a friend to turn to in a time of crisis, the number rising to 15 per cent for married men.

Friendship has shown not only to be important to a person's overall wellbeing, but can even add to a person's earnings. A previous study involving 10,000 US citizens over 35 years showed people earned 2 per cent more for each friend they had.

The Movember Foundation survey comes soon after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that men in Britain make up 58 per cent of the 2.47m people living alone between the ages of 45 and 64. The reasons behind this figure include marrying later in life and failed marriages, which usually result in children living with the mother. Women still make up the majority of the 7.7m single-occupant households across all ages in the country, at approximately 54 per cent.

Chronic loneliness seems to have slowly become a persistent problem for the country despite our hyper-connected world. It's an issue that has made even Jeremy Hunt say sensible things, such as "the busy, atomised lives we increasingly lead mean that too often we have become so distant from blood relatives" about this hidden crisis. He's previously called for British families to adopt the approach of many Asian families of having grandparents live under the same roof as children and grandchildren, and view care homes as a last, not first, option.

The number of single-person households has continued to increase over the years. While studies such as this add to the list of reasons why being alone is terrible for you, researchers are stumped as to how we can tackle this major social issue. Here's my suggestion: turn off whatever screen you're reading this from and strike up a conversation with someone who looks approachable. They could end up becoming your new best friend.