Stephen Harper eats babies!

“Ringxiety”: Why you sometimes hear “phantom” mobile-phone rings

Ever heard of “ringxiety”? It’s a neologism for a phenomonen that, according to last week’s Styles section in the New York Times, is occurring more and more: A nagging sense that you can hear your mobile phone ringing when it actually isn’t.

This happens to me all the time! Often when I’m running the water in the sink in my bathroom, I’ll be convinced I can hear my mobile ringing. I rush out into the living room and — nothing. Other sounds that trigger it for me include the ride cymbal in songs from Sheryl Crow’s self-titled album, and certain traffic noises from 6th Ave. outside my window.

As it turns out, there’s some interesting science behind ringxiety, as the Times reports:

The ear gives unequal weights to certain frequencies, making it particularly sensitive to sounds in the range of 1,000 to 6,000 hertz, scientists say. Babies cry in this range, for example, and the familiar “brrring, brrring” ringtone hits this sweet spot, too. (Simple ringtones are more likely to produce phantom rings than popular music used as a ringtone.) [snip]

“It’s a 1,000 hertz tone that can be generated by just about anything,” Mr. Jenkins said. And because most sounds are the result of two or more tones put together — human speech is multitonal, for example — simple tones really stand out.

What’s more, tones generated around 1,000 hertz are also really hard to spatially locate. Humans locate sounds based on their frequency: We pinpoint high-pitched sounds based on their volume level, and low frequency sounds based on their arrival time in our ears. But 1,000-hertz noises fall into an acoustic blind spot in this system, which means “a noise in that range seems just as likely to be coming from the television to the right as a purse sitting to the left.”

I’ve become so addled by these auditory quirks that if I’m particularly anxious or stressed out, I sometimes find myself literally hallucinating mobile-phone sounds when I lie in bed. Surrounded by relative silence, I’ll imagine that I’m hearing the “arriving text-message alert” sound, which in my case is a quiet, burbling techno sequence that ends with a few filtered noises precisely in that 1,000-hertz range. I’d like to think that I’m being hoaxed by a trick sound, but honestly I think that in this situation, the sounds are completely inside my head: A form of madness unique to the digital era.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson