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May 11, 2011

Do you have phantom limb syndrome?

Nokia N8 blue

We’re getting a little scientific on the Nseries Blog today and are going to explore an increasingly common phenomenon caused by using mobile phones – phantom limb syndrome.

This condition was originally used for amputees who suffered strange or painful sensations coming from the limbs that were missing. The cause of this sensation lies in the way the brain reorganises itself after it stops receiving signals from a limb’s nerves. Even though the limb is gone, the part of the brain associated with it remains, ‘remapped’ to different parts of the body.

But here’s the interesting bit. Recent experiments have shown that we can also identify inanimate objects as being part of our body.

And this is where mobile phones come in. They are tools we use so often that we sub-consciously consider them to be a part of ourselves. They are the first things we look at in the morning and the last things we check before we go to bed.

But can we feel their absence as painfully as we would a missing limb?

The World Unplugged study asked 1000 students around the globe to go without media – TV, mobile, games, news, Internet – for 24 hours, and record their feelings for the duration of that period. While it might sound slightly exaggerated, the students suffered from anxiety, depression and showed signs of withdrawl symptoms (as any addicts would). Here are just some of the responses people shared…

• A student from the USA noted, “I was itching like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone.”

• “I didn’t use my cell phone all night. It was a difficult day… a horrible day,” said a student from Chile. “After this, I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT MEDIA! I need my social webs, my cell phone, my Mac, and my mp3 always!”

• A student from Mexico highlighted, “It was an unpleasant surprise to realise that I am in a state of constant distraction, as if my real life and my virtual life were coexisting in different planes, but in equal time.”

It’s quite surprising to see how critical phones have become for giving us ‘access’ to the world and managing our work and personal lives. We might not suffer physical pain, yet there can be a significant change to our psychology.

But when we think about it, we’ve all had these ‘anxious’ sensations briefly when we haven’t had our phones within easy reach. We’ve all imagined our phones vibrating in our pockets when they’re not. Or have heard the message tone when the phone’s been quiet all day. And we don’t think anything of it.

Maybe we’ve become too reliant on phones to do too much for us?

There’s no doubt that if we’re going to use them all the time then we need some sort of back-up plan for the times when they’re not available. Otherwise we’ll all be suffering painful withdrawl…