Fear of Holes May Stem From Evolutionary Survival Response

What do lotus flowers, soap bubbles, and aerated chocolate have in common? They may seem innocuous, even pleasant, but each of these items is a trigger for people who report suffering from trypophobia, or the fear of holes. For trypophobes, the sight of clusters of holes in various formations can cause intensely unpleasant visceral reactions.

New research from psychological scientists Geoff Cole and Arnold Wilkins of the University of Essex suggests that trypophobia may occur as a result of a specific visual feature also found among various poisonous animals. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“These findings suggest that there may be an ancient evolutionary part of the brain telling people that they are looking at a poisonous animal,” says Cole.

Trypophobia is widely documented by sufferers on the Internet and, in one study, Cole and Wilkins found that about 16% of participants reported trypophobic reactions. Despite this, there has been little scientific investigation of the phenomenon, leading Cole to refer to trypophobia as “the most common phobia you have never heard of.”

Cole and Wilkins, both vision scientists, wondered whether there might be a specific visual feature common to trypophobic objects.

They compared 76 images of trypophobic objects (obtained from a trypophobia website) with 76 control images of holes not associated with trypophobia. After standardizing various features of the images, the researchers found that the trypophobic objects had relatively high contrast energy at midrange spatial frequencies in comparison to the control images.

Why might this unique visual feature lead to such aversive reactions? One trypophobia sufferer provided Cole with a clue: He had seen an animal that caused him to experience a trypophobic reaction.

The animal in question, the blue-ringed octopus, is one of the most poisonous animals in the world, which led Cole to a “bit of a Eureka moment.”

He and Wilkins analyzed images of various poisonous animals — including the blue-ringed octopus, deathstalker scorpion, king cobra snake, and other poisonous snakes and spiders — and found that they, too, tended to have relatively high contrast at midrange spatial frequencies.

In light of this, the researchers speculate that trypophobia may have an evolutionary basis — clusters of holes may be aversive because they happen to share a visual feature with animals that humans have learned to avoid as a matter of survival.

“We think that everyone has trypophobic tendencies even though they may not be aware of it,” says Cole. “We found that people who don’t have the phobia still rate trypophobic images as less comfortable to look at than other images.”

In studies currently under way, Cole and Wilkins are exploring whether manipulating the spectral characteristics of images of everyday objects, like watches, leads people to prefer one object over another. They believe these experiments will shed light on just how ingrained trypophobic tendencies might be.

Comments

I am so happy to read this!!! I have “trypophobia,” although unlike most phobias, it doesn’t impact my life very much. When people have asked me what the cause of it is, I have always said that I thought it was evolutionary or biological. That is, I thought it might have to do with a natural fear of disease (diseased skin for example). But this makes still more sense because along with holes I find scales very disruptive as well as certain bumpy surfaces. One of the strangest I’ve had a reaction to was a large telephone pole on the street with hundreds of large staples in it from flyers over the years. I recoiled from it quite literally and couldn’t look at it.

Am so afflicted seemingly since forever and, while not at all so regarding honeycombs, do respond with immediate aversion to IRREGULARLY-shaped clusters.
For some unexplained reason, few visual reactions have been more violently revolting to me as were the images of the barnacles attached to the recovered wing part of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Just looked up the photo and was again intensely impacted.
Not sure that repeated exposure would help me overcome my response.

I also have trypophobia. I’ve had it since I was born I believe. It nice to finally meet others like me after 28 years of thinking I was alone.

After long time of research and inquisitive time period I could find the way. Yeah I have been finding my self in for last 2 years never been before that. The reasons are very clear. Uncertain fears which were resulted by family issues. Unresolved matters and uncertainty of reward. When I see these holes , i feel ” who knows what’s inside” it seems something is coming or taking birth from it. But horrible sometime. I am starting trying to gain control over it. If my mind can produce it , my mind can resolve it.

I am 42 years old and have always experienced a strong adverse reaction to clusters/small holes; so happy to know that it is an actual phobia. I get chills and my entire skull feels tingly – yes, sounds nuts, but true. Unfortunately there seems to be no lack of these types of images online (why oh why do people share these on FB as in “Oh, look how gross this is!”) Good luck everyone, glad to know i’m not alone!

I too have these same sensations throughout my body when I see small holes or clusters of small holes I’ve noticed this many times growing up until my current self

I am so happy to know I’m not alone
I have this phobia. I can’t make pancakes because the bubbles freak me out. Seeing a bee hive makes me cry. The honey comb is too much for me. I don’t know what to do about this phobia. Just looking at images that have holes or dots gives me goosebumps and makes me feel sick.

Yikes, I thought I was alone, until Googling this about 10 years ago. Even single holes will get me sometimes, especially if misshapen. A pic of a gaping gunshot hole made me want to throw-up, and not so much from gore of it, just the hole of it. I went to see about going up in a FB group, but they all have pictures that make me nauseated!

I have a mild degree of this and am very interested in the subject. If you experience these reactions, would you say you are feeling disgust (it’s gross,) or revulsion (it might hurt me.) It might be a combination of the two. If so, try to express how much of both.

I first had the trypophobia attack when I was about 6 or 7, that I can remember. I saw a picture of an octopus and the fear and panic ripped me open! I still cannot look at pictures, or watch on TV that animal. My family always thought I was overreacting, and I assumed it was just a childhood fear. 24 years later, I still have that fear. It has also started to encompass things like diseased skin or holes in a tree or leaf, animal skin or fur that is disfigured. I am uncontrollably sickened and incapacitated when I see these things. I am glad to know I am not alone with this problem. I first realized my issue may be more than just a bad memory of the octopus picture when I was watching the newest American Horror story episode. The character was at a psychologist and mentioned that the piece of coral decoration he had on his shelf was “staring” at her and was disgusting because of the holes. Her comment was quite appropriate to how I feel.

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