Your cell phone rings. You go to answer it, but there's no one there. Curiously, there's no missed call, either. You realize after a moment that you mistook a bird chirping for your cell phone's ring. What's weird is that this isn't the first time this has happened to you. You're probably not insane -- instead, you are suffering from what's come to be called ringxiety.
It's not surprising that in the increasingly wireless and connected world, humanity would begin to suffer techno-neuroses. Electronic gadgets have become a part of the everyday lives of people worldwide. Ringxiety is among the first of these new neuroses to emerge, along with Internet addiction and the "crackberry" phenomenon -- a person's compulsive urge to use and check his BlackBerry wireless device. While crackberry addiction is a compulsive behavior, ringxiety may be a result of that and similar compulsions.
Ringxiety, first coined by psychologist David Laramie, is exactly what it sounds like: confusing the sound of a cell phone ringing with a sound similar to it. Since there's no harm done, aside from a bit of annoyance -- especially if a person struggles to locate his phone -- most people seem to regard ringxiety as a curiosity or a fact of wireless life. The exact origin of this hallucination has yet to be exactly pinned down, however.
Some researchers think that ringxiety stems from a constant state of readiness that could develop in cell phone users. Before the advent of wireless phones, no one expected a call while driving in the car, shopping at the grocery store or dancing at a nightclub. With cell phones, though, there's a potential for a call to come through at any moment. Because of this, it's possible that our brains are conditioned to expect a call constantly, and when a person hears a tone that reminds him of his cell phone ringing, he will believe that's the case.
Others believe that ringxiety -- or in this case, phantom ringing -- simply stems from confusion due to the frequency of most stock cell phone ringtones and the location of our ears. Most standard cell ringtones play at a frequency of around 1,000 hertz. Humans are particularly attuned to pick up on sounds at this range, especially if they're single-toned, like many ring tones. But because people have ears on either side of their heads, it's difficult for them to pinpoint the source of a sound, particularly at this frequency -- for example, from a phone or from a bird outside. To some, this explains the phenomenon of phantom ringing. This doesn't hold true for multi-tonal rings, however, such as an MP3 of a popular song.
Those who opt to set the phone to "vibrate" rather than "ring" aren't off the hook either. Even stranger than phantom ringing is the phantom vibration phenomenon. This is also a part of the ringxiety that David Laramie studied, although fewer ideas about its origins have been suggested. It's similar to phantom ringing, but phantom vibration is a physical rather than an auditory hallucination.
It's also similar to another, well-documented phenomenon called phantom limb syndrome. In this medically recognized condition, amputees -- people who've had limbs removed -- report feeling pain in limbs that are no longer attached to their bodies. Is it possible that people have become as attached to their cell phones as they are to their own arms and legs?
Though ringxiety is little more than an annoyance, it may say a lot about the minds of those who experience it. Read on to explore the psychology behind wireless society.