Digital Limb

A couple of weeks ago I felt a strange sensation in my ass.

I was sitting down watching television (Flash Forward) when I felt my cell phone vibrate in my left back pocket. But when I reached to it, much to my surprise, it wasn’t there. I shrugged it off. Maybe a passing truck and sent some tremors up though my couch. But ten minutes later my left butt cheek vibrated again. And again. And again. “I must’ve pulled something at the gym,” I told myself, and left it at that.

But the phantom phone just kept ringing. Sometimes a real phone was in my back pocket, sometimes it wasn’t- but every time I felt the sensation my phone wasn’t ringing.

One night the vibrations were so constant that I began to worry. So I did the worst thing anyone can ever do when they’re experiencing strange symptoms – I logged onto the Internet. After half and hour of Googling I was convinced I was having mini-strokes, diabetic neuropathy and Multiple Sclerosis all rolled into one. But after some deep breathing exercises I told myself I was making something out of nothing and decided not go all Code Red. And a few days later the buzzing stopped as mysteriously as it started.

Two weeks later I’m in my doctor’s office for my yearly physical. After the weigh-in, EKG, BP check and annual anal violation my doctor states I’d live another year. “Just lose weight and reduce the stress in your life,” he says. And as my sphincter resets itself from the gloved finger I tell the doc about the other weird sensations in my butt.

“Oh that’s nothing,” he says. “I call it “Absent Cell Phone Syndrome.”

“Are you serious?”

“Where do you keep your cell phone?”

“In my left back pocket.”

“And is that where you have the feelings?”


The doctor laughs. “I’ve been carrying a beeper for over thirty years. And every once in a while I feel it buzzing on my belt when it’s not there. You get so used to the feeling that the body replicates it.”

“Absent cell phone syndrome,” I said. “I like that. You think that one up all by yourself?”

“I should patent the phrase,” my doc said. “Write it up on your blog. See if anyone else has been experiencing the same thing.”

When I leave the doctor’s office I think how different the world is than the one I grew up in. When I was a kid we had TVs with antennas, got the news from three networks, picked up the phone when it rang, played records, sent letters through the mail and had to go to the library to research term papers. Now I can’t imagine a world without email, 24-hour news, blogs, Wikipedia, text messaging, cell phones, voice mail,, iPods, plasma televisions and, especially, laptops. If I had to write two books using a typewriter and carbon paper like they did “back in the day” I’d have become a drunk. All this stuff has become woven into the fabric of our everyday lives and there’s no turning back.

When a person loses a limb it’s not uncommon for them to still feel pain and sensations where their appendage used to be. It’s called Phantom Limb Syndrome. And since electronic toys have become such a part of us, a digital limb so to speak, they’re now a virtual part of our bodies. So it should come as no surprise that I’m feeling mysterious vibrations in my ass – it’s used to my cell phone. And let’s not talk about when the Internet is down. When the power went in my neighborhood a few weeks ago I thought my roommate was going to slit his wrists. No internet! No email! No instant messaging! Our brains seem to crave the endless mental stimulation the worldwide web offers. Me? I read a book by candlelight. But to be honest after three days I was getting itchy too.

Later that night my roommate comes home from work and plops an iPad into my lap. His job lent him one to figure out how to make their business operations more efficient. When Apple rolled out this little gadget a few months ago I thought, “What a stupid device, my laptop can do everything this thing can.” But after a few hours playing with it I found myself sucked into a world of e-books, watching videos and surfing the web on something no bigger than a magazine. It’s just another digital limb – but a really cool one. And when my roommate took it back to work with him the next morning I felt deprived. Uh oh. Absent iPad syndrome!

I have an iPhone, iPod and a Mac already. But as my fingers ached for the iPad’s touch screen my ass started buzzing again.

I’m so screwed.

72 thoughts on “Digital Limb”

  1. DABCT says:

    Amen brother, my BlackBerry drives me crazy with absent vibrations.

  2. Carrie says:

    I always think my phone is ringing in my purse, and I check it, and nothing. When it really does vibrate/ring, I always miss it. I don’t get it!

  3. KT says:

    Happens to me ALL THE TIME! I never thought it was a popular phenomenon.

  4. Tucatz says:

    I have that happen sometimes. I usually carry it in my shirt pocket, and once in a while I’ll feel a vibration on the left side of my chest. The phone may be in a pants pocket with the volume on and I may be well aware of that, but I still get that sensation.

    Glad to know that it now has a name.

  5. Allen says:

    Same thing happens to me! Thought I was going nuts. Glad I’m not the only one.

  6. bill says:

    I’m 52. I find it amazing to think that there are now people in the work who have never known a world without mobiles or the net.

    I have no concept of what that is like.

    I know that I would be bereft if it went away. Imagine what the kids would feel like having to remember phone numbers!

  7. Matt says:

    Few weeks ago I swore my phone was going off because my left leg was vibrating, and I keep my phone in my left front pocket.

    Of course I’ll also check my phone that I know is on vibrate only if I hear a tone in a song, or on TV that sounds like the phone.

  8. Mark says:

    Dilbert first noticed “phantom-pager syndrome” in 1996.

  9. T. Scott says:

    Finally, some other folks that have the phantom phone vibrations. I thought I was crazy this whole time…now I know there are other people like me and I don’t feel so alone.

    Absent Cell Phone Syndrome…we should start a support group.

  10. savannah says:

    we were just talking about the iPad this morning, so thanks for the heads up about its addictive nature, sugar! i don’t need another monkey on my back…or apple in my purse. xoxo

  11. jj says:

    For what it’s worth, the phrase “Phantom Pager Syndrome” was popularized some years ago by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, in one of his cartoons.

  12. Ashley says:

    Too funny! I admit that I don’t keep my iPhone in my back pocket, but awhile ago I got used to falling asleep with it under my pillow since my husband is in Afghanistan. Now at night I can’t seem to sleep without it! Definitely a dependency! Isn’t it interesting how in just a few short decades the way we communicate has grown and changed so much? I have to say though, I still take a guilty pleasure in holding an actual book as opposed to an electronic version of one!

  13. Persephone says:

    I keep my cell phone in my purse and it’s only set to ring, but there have been several times when I would swear it was ringing, only to find it wasn’t. Thank you for letting me know that I’m not the only one.

  14. June says:

    I must have been an early adopter of the digital limb – in ’96 I spent enough time on aol that I would hear an instant message ding every time I left the room only to race back and see that no one had been contacting me.

    Does a desktop computer count as a digital limb? At least I know the auditory hallucinations weren’t a precursor to schizophenia. At least not so far. . .

  15. Ali says:

    I get that, too. I carry my cell phone in my left front pocket, and often when I’m sitting, I think my phone is vibrating. I pull it out to check, and…nothing. Apparently, my body wants me to think I’m more popular than I really am 😀

  16. James says:

    I’vev had absent cell phone syndrome before, on occasion. Not (yet) as constant as you talk about here, though. I’ve also had similar occurrences with new email & IM notification sounds.

  17. Amber says:

    WOW, I thought this only happened to me. I keep my phone in the middle pocket of my apron and when it’s NOT ringing, I always feel it vibrating on my left leg.

    So glad I’m not alone in this LOL!

  18. Chris says:

    I have the same problem (though not near as bad as you, from the sound of it). I carry my phone in the left breast pocket on my shirt and every once in a while I could swear I feel it vibrate when there isn’t any call coming in.

    I don’t have absent iPad syndrome yet, but I just got my iPad on Monday. Typing this comment is the first time I’ve tried it out with my bluetooth keyboard (works great). I really love it so far!

  19. rick says:

    Phew! good to know you got a clean bill of health! All or most of the cell phones emit varying levels of radiation and carrying them close to vital organs over the long term could pose health risks.

  20. Jonathan says:

    Years ago, I heard this phenomenon described as “faux cell-arm” and I thought it was so clever that the phrase has stuck with me ever since.

  21. Sam says:

    Heh seems like this is extremely common. To add to the list of “me too!” responses, this happens to me from time to time as well. I keep my iPhone in my front left pocket and feel it vibrating when it actually isn’t probably once a week. I think most often it’s when I’m driving. Maybe the driving vibrations set off something in my brain.

  22. Ben says:

    i never have felt it “vibrate” when my phone’s not in my pocket, but i do fairly frequently when it is in there. my theory is that some vibrations at the same frequency as the vibrator in my phone set my vibrator off and it briefly goes around. i dont know if i made that make sense, but thats what i think.

  23. Zonadow says:

    This reminds me! I was going to ask on one of your posts that was relevant, you should come out with an e-book version of your new book! >w< I just got an iPod Touch 3G for my birthday and I adore it, but I can’t help but notice the lack of reading material that’s relevant to my interests. I’d probably buy a physical AND digital copy of Keep the Change for relaxing in the day and reading at night for when I don’t have a book light.

    Since I got my first cell phone -for emergency uses only- a couple days ago, I’ve never felt the Abscent Cell Phone Syndrome but since I type all day my fingers twitch quite a lot XD

  24. AES says:

    Happens all the time – drives me crazy. Articles have been published on this phenomenon for years.

  25. dane says:

    so this might explain the strange pulling sensation i get in my behind even though i don’t have the empty soup can which is attached to the string which is attached to sally’s empty soup can…

  26. Mccn says:

    I am diabetic (Type I/juvenile/the Mary Tyler Moore type) and I wear an insulin pump. It’s always on me, unless I’m in the water.

    Except, one day, I got to work and it wasn’t. I remember patting myself to check it was there, which I do every day, and I swear to god I felt the damned thing. Now I pat with both hands, to make extra sure.

  27. static says:

    i’ve never felt the vibration when it wasnt there, however i do feel tingling and vibration sometimes when my phone is in my pocket even though no one is calling or texting me. i chalk it up to the great conspiracy using their gps to track my location and keep tabs on me XD

  28. Mattheous says:

    Why do you have an iPhone AND an iPod?

    Also: Your book changed my tipping habits–and also started me as a food blogger.

  29. RG says:

    @chris: hey! That exactly the same with what happened to me! I used to put my Nokia in my left breast pocket too!

  30. Connie in CA says:

    Not alone in this. I constantly feel my iPhone buzzing in my pocket when there’s nothing going on. A

    nd for those asking about having both iPhone and iPod – the iPhone has a limited battery life and can surf the net. The iPod lasts practically forever and has music. And is a lot less tricky to haul around.

  31. Robert Singleton says:

    Immersion in media is nothing new — I had a teacher in the early seventies who, when the power went out one day, said: “That’s okay. I’ll just show a film strip.”

  32. LettieMarie says:

    I wear glasses usually and contacts on occassion. I often find myself trying to adjust my glasses when I’ve got my contacts in, and then trying to cover it up by faking an itch on my cheek or something. We’d make a great couple — Steve grabbing his fake vibrating ass and me stabbing myself in the eye trying to fix my invisible glasses. Hot!

  33. Booply says:

    I work in room-service and we’re always answering the phones, and there’s the front phone where the sit-down restaurant is. Kinda hard to hear it from around the corner where we put in orders and prep and stuff. I always hear the damn thing ringing when it isn’t, don’t think that’s the same thing but w/e.

  34. Klynne says:

    I had this strange thing happen to me as well. I had been on paxil for a year,for depression, then, when I felt better, I just quit taking it. For the next year, I had these little electrical shocks, or that is what it felt like. They would make me jerk, and it was very strange. They finally went away. I complained to my Dr. about it. He said it was all in my mind. A year later, I read about this side effect of going off of paxil. Yes, it does happen, and some people can never go off the drug.

  35. Innkeeper Chronicles says:

    If you work at the Front Desk of a hotel, the tone of the telephone becomes engraved on your soul. Most aren’t allowed to ring more than 2 or 3 times, so quick reaction is key. I was day-dreaming in the dentist office once, waiting for the receptionist to finish with my insurance when the her phone rang with a that certain familiar tone…I totally snatched it before she could lift her hand. I realized what I did and just held it out to her and said “It’s probably for you”.

  36. Johannes says:

    I like the term ringxiety more.

  37. Charissa says:

    Yup. Left front instead of left back, but count me in. And my phone doesn’t even ring that much.

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  40. Glenda says:

    “Absent Cellphone Syndrome” – that’s hilarious! It has never happened to me I guess because I alwys keep my iPhone inside my bag. This story made me laugh though. =)

  41. Jimothy says:

    I’ve had this sensation too. Thing is, I don’t use a cell phone (I know, *gasp*). I don’t think it has anything to do with a cell phone aside from the fact that, nowadays, just about everyone carries one. Correlation is not causation, as we all know.

  42. Bill Melater says:

    I love my Opad too!

  43. Barone says:

    This happens to me all the time! I thought of it in the same way if someone were to loose thier leg they would still feel an itch.

  44. D says:

    my friend started a facebook page for this and called it “PVS or Phantom Vibration Syndrome”. It already has quite a few fans.

  45. carolyn says:

    I used to get something like that. I’d think my cell phone was going off, but no one had called. Phone anxiety. After that I stopped using my phone so much. i guess it was an indicator that I shouldn’t be using it so much.

  46. Jason says:

    Happens to me too, and my cell isn’t even on vibrate! Ever!

  47. Jonas says:

    This is unrelated to your post, but I’m curious to see what you’d say about this incident:

  48. Kate says:

    I’m a waitress and keep my phone in my right pants pocket in case the sitter needs to get a hold of me. Unfortunately its usually only the bill collectors that call. But I thought I was going crazy until I stumbled across this. My pocket goes off whether the phone is in it or not. To funny.

  49. Joy says:

    Yes, the phantom phone vibration on my butt. Happens to me all the time too.

  50. Carol says:

    I thought I was the only one to experience this! I put my cell phone on high and vibrate when I’m driving and keep the cell phone under my thigh as I drive so I can feel it vibrate, even if the radio is on. I went through a time when I would not have the cell phone with me at all, but would still feel a short vibration, like the cell phone would make if I was receiving a call.

  51. Danielle says:

    Front right hip – I keep mine in that pocket – I always wondered what it was.

  52. Sable says:

    My phone hasn’t been working since i moved but just earlier i felt it vibrate and looked all over for it. its off and on top of the tv more than fifty feet away.

  53. umm...waiter? says:

    I have phantom server syndrome or PSS. When I am not working my brain tells me that I am holding up a tray of food when really, this isn’t happening. It makes me very self-conscious when I am in public. I can also say “me too” about the cell phone occurance. So, me too.

  54. Sarah says:

    Yeah dude, everybody gets the random vibratey. For me it seems to happen more often when I’m driving.

  55. zacharym says:

    It happens to me too. It took a few years of having a cell for it to happen, but it does – most often in the car or on the bus, or when I’m walking. Now I just pat my pocket to check for the vibration before I bother pulling it out.

  56. Cashier says:

    Ahh, the Internet is one of my favorite places to self-diagnose myself. I’ve had everything according to Google! 🙂

  57. Beaver Brown says:

    I’m at the present reading your book WAITER RANT. It was referred to me with the mention of my writings. It is most entertaing and I like your perspective. I just checked out your blog and had a good laugh about the phathom cell phone vibration. I asked my husband has he ever experience a vibration and found out he didn’t have his cell phone in his pocket. He said, Yes, how did I know about it?” I called my husband in here to read your blog about your experience and we both had a good lalugh. I think SNL should do a sketch about this. It is a real syndrome. Got to get back to your book now.

  58. Paula says:

    I had this happen once & I had to yell at my husband to pull the car over-I seriously thought there was a mouse or a chipmunk on the seat & that it was squirming underneath me. Turns out it was a muscle spasm..I don’t wear pants with back pockets, and the phone is either in my front pocket or purse, and never on vibrate…

  59. Anton says:

    So THAT’S what it is…and there I was thinking there was something wrong with my nerves.

  60. Andrew says:

    I wanted to post this in your post above, but the comments were disabled.

    “If you don’t “do” dogs I don’t care is you’re a supermodel – you’re gone.”

    “is” should be “if”

    How much do editors make?

  61. Karla says:

    That crazy vibrating thing happens to me too. But that’s not why I’m writing. I just wanted to say that your posts have been very interesting and informative and that I enjoy reading them. That’s all. Thanks.

  62. Johannes 2 says:

    I have hallucinations about my callphone ringing sometimes. I usually leave it in my coat pocket when at home. One time, I heard it ringing in my jacket at the same time as I saw it sitting on my desk, turned off and charging.

  63. Andrew says:

    I get this also, and I don’t even use my phone all that much. I did notice though that it tends to happen more at times of the day when I often do get calls.

  64. Daniel G says:

    I get the same thing, vibration on my hip where i keep the phone. My friend called it “Ringxiety.” Its the same type pf sensation i used to get when I switched from glasses to contacts. I was always pushing the air up the bridge of my nose.

  65. Steve says:

    I definitely have the phantom vibrations. iPhone (can’t wait for the new one), MacBook, iPod, and possibly an iPad soon too… woops… addicted to technology.

    Love your writing and this blog — thought the first book was excellent!

  66. Christa says:

    No vibrating butt. However, my ringtone is the T-mobile jingle and every time a T-mobile commercial is on the tv my cat jumps off my lap and runs away. He has learned that sound means I am about to sprint across the room.

  67. Phyllis says:

    Sometimes vibrating from the back pocket, but more often than not, I feel vibrations from my apron. I often leave my cell phone in my apron while I’m at work, but it definitely happens when I forget to carry it or when the phone is off.

    So glad to learn I’m not the only one!

  68. Social Sherpa says:

    wow, this is amazing….I’ve been experiencing this for years…..the scary thing is I used to carry my phone in the front right pants pocket and as you may imagine…..yes, a little jingle in the dingle…….auto-erotic like…..and I thought is was the hottie in the office next to mine 😉

  69. Heather says:

    I can feel your pain here. I am ADDICTED to my Facebook page. It’s like I can’t be bored just being in my house, no, I have to be bored ON Facebook. Haha people, including myself, are so addicted to material things that keep us “connected” (I put this in quotations because to me texting isn’t a real conversation with someone…it truely is different face to face) with our friends and family.

  70. Militant Rubber Ducky says:

    I agree with you on being so taken over by technology. I am 23 years old, and grew up with computers in the classroom, Playstation, cellphones, and the ever-evolving technology that accompanies them – and I love it. As a police dispatcher, multi-tasking is vital in doing the job, making split-second decisions and getting people home safe at night. Being a Gizmo Baby (my nickname to those of my generation) has bred me to be a lean, mean, multi-tasking machine; I can listen to the main radio, work an armed robbery on the tactical channel with the chopper and K9, enter a stolen car into the system, and answer multiple phone lines without missing a beat. I thank the ever-increasing demands for my attention by technology for making me this way.

  71. David says:

    get those vibrations in my leg all the time. internet research says it is phantom, drives me wild, but I have an iPad, so not experiencing the iPad deprivation… LOL

  72. Yagnesh says:

    I too had similar experience with my support phone which i carries 24/7 production support, i had habbit to keep my phon always on vibration & i used to suffer from same syndrom so i stopped keeping support phone or any cell phone on vibrate mode.. good one.

  73. Sledge says:

    I also have this symptom but after many years of cell phone in front pocket I feel it multiple times a day. I think we all have some weird (hopefully minor) nerve damage from the constant cell signal radiation (microwaves are electromagnetic radiation). All the tests so far have found no medical danger but they have not focused on devices that rest continually next to the skin as far as I know. I think the combination of nerve stimulation from the vibration coupled with the microwave radiation is “recording” the event into the nerves. If nerve damage can be proved it’ll cost the cell phone industry a billion dollars even though the effects are as yet minimal.

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