Techno life of today bringing on more cases of ringxiety
By BRENDA GOODMAN, New York Times News Service
Six minutes 39 seconds into the
Richard Thompson song “Calvary Cross,” Mike Pelusi, a music reviewer in
Philadelphia, will almost invariably check his cellphone.
Minka Wiltz, an actress in Atlanta, has tried to answer her phone to the
thrrrrup, thrrrrup, thrrrrup of a truck bouncing down a pothole-pocked street.
Others say they thought they heard phones ring while taking a shower, using a
blow-dryer or watching commercials.
What they are hearing is a barely discernable sound — perhaps chimes, a faint
trill or an electronic bleat — that they mistake for the ringtone of their
cellphone, which isn’t ringing. This audio illusion — called phantom phone rings
or, more whimsically, ringxiety or fauxcellarm — has emerged recently as an
Internet discussion topic and has become a new reason for people to either
bemoan the techno-saturation of modern life or question their sanity.
Some sound experts believe that because cellphones have become a fifth limb for
many, people now live in a constant state of phone vigilance, and hearing sounds
that seem like a telephone’s ring can send an expectant brain into action.
“My experience has been hearing just a few notes that are similar to my phone’s
ring, my brain will fill in the rest,” said David Laramie, a doctoral student at
the Los Angeles campus of the California School of Professional Psychology, who
is writing his dissertation about the effect of cellphones on behavior.
He plans to send questionnaires this summer to earn when and how often phantom
rings happen and who is most likely to experience them. A few notes in the
background of a television commercial can fool him, he said. Other times the
culprit will be the sound effects in a song on the radio.
“Another place I hear it is running water, so I sometimes hear it while I’m
shaving,” Laramie said.
Phantom rings are a “psycho-acoustic phenomenon” related to the way the human
brain interprets sound, said Rob Nokes, president of Sound Dogs, a sound effects
company in California.
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.)
“Your brain is conditioned to respond to a phone ring just as it is to a baby
crying,” Nokes said.
Why people seem to be hearing phantom rings more often now is another question.
The answers range from the paranoid to the vast exposure to cellphones in
people’s lives — there were 207 million wireless subscribers nationwide at the
end of 2005, a nearly sevenfold increase in just a decade, according to the
Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.
On blogs, some cellphone users wonder if an ominous agenda is at work when a
phantom ring is triggered by a television or radio broadcast. A writer posting
as Koan on forumgarden.com said that at first, songs played on the radio
triggered a phantom ring. “Thing is, the high-pitched sounds, although a lot
fainter, are still present during announcements now,” Koan wrote. “What is this?
Is it subliminal advertising or something else?”
Peter Arnell, the chief creative officer of the Arnell Group in New York and a
major force in the marketing business, said that theory might not be far off the
While he said he has never been asked by a client to include sounds in an
advertisement that would mimic a ringing cellphone, he thinks the increasing use
of high-pitched, electronic tones is very much by design.
“People are using a sound trigger to control emotions,” Arnell said. “The most
controlling device in our life right now is a cellphone.”
He suggested that a sound trick that sent confused listeners hunting for their
cellphones might be especially effective for ads ending with a call to action.
(An example is a directive to “Call this toll-free number now!”)
“Hollywood has always known how to use sound to control emotions, right?” Arnell
continued. “But this is newer to advertising. Sound effects have become the big
deal on Madison Avenue.”
Michael Sweet, the creative director of Audio Brain, a sonic branding company in
New York that has done work for NBC and Verizon, also said that he had never
been asked to use a sound for the purpose of generating a phantom ring. But he
also said he believes that the ear-brain trick isn’t a mistake.
“I think it’s definitely intentional,” Sweet said. “Do ad agencies know they’re
getting your attention? Sure. Do they know it’s because you’re trying to answer
your phone to the TV? Not necessarily.”
Allen Henderson, who runs the blog AwfulCommercials.com, was bothered by a
Toyota ad showing a man dragging a rusted heap of a car uphill as if it were a
ball and chain. The chain eventually snaps and the man is free to drive a
Toyota. Henderson lamented what he called the spot’s overblown premise, but that
wasn’t the only thing.
“Most of all,” Henderson wrote on his blog, “I hate this commercial for making
me check my phone every time it came on the air.” Steve R. Chavez, creative
director for Saatchi & Saatchi, the Los Angeles agency that created the spot,
“Ball and Chain,” seemed tickled when told of Henderson’s phantom ring
“You know, it only took us 20 years to develop that,” Chavez said impishly. “I’m
“I think, as an industry, we’re often accused of manipulation. It’s simply not
And after this reporter was taunted by phantom rings from “Homage,” a television
spot for Marriott Hotels, the ad agency that created it, McGarry Bowen in New
York, said any confusion was purely unintentional.
“Everyone here is kind of baffled,” said Rob Kaplan, the director of music
production at McGarry Bowen. “No one meant to put anything that sounded like a
cellphone ringtone in the spot.”
In “Homage,” which was conceived as a tribute to business travelers, a series of
twinkling chimes punctuate shots of hotel rooms, a traveler falling back on a
bed, and shoes kicked off on the floor.
Kaplan said the spot was created before he was hired but that the sound design
wasn’t meant to fool the ear. “I’ve worked on a lot of spots that have used a
lot of modern, atonal sounds,” Kaplan said. “It is kind of cutting edge and
compliments visuals really well.”
Intentional or not, audio experts say fooling the ear into hearing a ringing
phone isn’t hard.
As long as it’s a more traditional trill, a telephone ring is a simple tone that
can be reproduced relatively easy, said Adam Jenkins, a sound effects mixer who
has worked on movies like “Crash” and “Apollo 13.”
“It’s a 1,000 hertz tone that can be generated by just about anything,” 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.
Tones that are generated around 1,000 hertz have another special characteristic
that helps them hoodwink those within range. It is tough to tell where they are
While phantom rings may generate reactions from curiosity to irritation, at
least explanations for the phenomenon exist. More mysterious are phantom phone
vibrations, a cellphone side effect that many people said they also have
experienced. It seems that having a phone set to vibrate can cause a
particularly physical kind of false alarm.
Charles Maniaci, a special education teacher from Atlanta, said he used to feel
phantom vibrations almost constantly. Then about a year ago he developed a lump
on his thigh underneath the pocket where he kept his cell phone. “Nobody could
tell me what it was,” he said.
For a while, he moved his phone to a belt clip. But the vibrations eventually
stopped, and he moved the phone back to his pocket. “I’ve thought that maybe the
nerves got so irritated from the phone vibrating that this tissue grew around
them,” he said. “That’s what the body does, it grows tissue around things to
protect them. But it’s exactly where he used to keep the phone.”