Who’s Afraid of a Cluster of Holes? 16 Percent of People

The first peer-reviewed research on the increasingly Internet-famous disorder. Trypophobia is the fear of clustered holes like those shown in the lotus seed pod above.

The typical illustration of the kind of holes that terrify trypophobics is the lotus seed, but other triggers include sponges, soap bubbles, and even aerated chocolate.

Trypophobia is not recognized in pyschiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but it is present in 16 percent of people, according to a new study in Psychological Science, which is the first to address the strange fear.

“The stimuli are usually clusters of holes of any variety that are almost always innocuous and seemingly pose no threat,” the authors note. But they induce visceral reactions all the same.

“[I] can’t really face small, irregularly or asymmetrically placed holes, they make me like, throw up in my mouth, cry a little bit, and shake all over, deeply,” one trypophobe involved in the study said. My apparently trypophobic friend Monica says of the lotus seed pod: “That photo actually makes me want to stab my eyes out.”

The study found that this fear might actually be an evolutionary adaptation, not just a weird human quirk. A cartoon lightbulb went off over the head of one of the researchers when he came across a trypophobe who claimed he couldn’t stand to look at photographs of the blue-ringed octopus, one of the most toxic animals in the world.

The researchers analyzed images from trypophobia.com and found that many of them have high contrast at midrange spatial frequencies, as do images of poisonous animals like the octopus, as well as the deathstalker scorpion and many poisonous snakes and spiders.

“We therefore suggest that trypophobia arises because the inducing stimuli share a core spectral feature with such organisms—a feature that does not reach conscious awareness,” the researchers wrote.

Many people might not yet be able to put a name to the uneasy sensation they experience when viewing photos like these. According to Google Trends, the term “trypophobia” started to slowly gain popularity online about 2009 but didn’t really take off until 2012. Monica says she “never connected the dots” until she read an article about the fear. “Even just seeing the words clustered holes freaks me out,” she adds.

“This survival account is based on the notion that humans have been selected, via Darwinian principles, for their ability to notice poisonous organisms,” the study reads, and while throwing up in your mouth or stabbing your eyes out may not be particularly effective strategies when faced with a poisonous animal, these trypophobes may be on to something all the same.

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