Trypophobia, commonly known as ‘fear of holes,’ is linked to disgust and not fear, researchers have found.
Many people report feeling an aversion to clusters of holes – such as those of a honeycomb, a lotus seed pod or even aerated chocolate.
Now, researchers have worked out why,.
Scroll down for video
Whether you’re set off by a lotus seed pod (pictured) or something as common as the bubbles in a cup of coffee, one thing’s for sure – for people with trypophobia, the mere sight of a cluster of holes can be enough to push you over the edge
Trypophobia, sometimes called repetitive pattern phobia, was coined in 2005.
Although it is not officially recognized by some psychologists, thousands of people claim to be fearful of objects with small holes, such as beehives, ant holes and lotus seed heads.
Sufferers have visceral reaction when they see everyday objects and animals with associated patterns, which can reportedly make their skin crawl, hair hurt, and even their stomach turn.
Though it’s typically described as a ‘fear of holes,’ a new study suggests trypophobia may be more of a disgust-based aversion, brought on by clusters of roughly circular shapes.
‘Some people are so intensely bothered by the sight of these objects that they can’t stand to be around them,’ says Stella Lourenco, a psychologist at Emory University whose lab conducted the study, published in PeerJ.
‘The phenomenon, which likely has an evolutionary basis, may be more common than we realize.’
Previous research linked trypophobic reactions to some of the same visual spectral properties shared by images of evolutionarily threatening animals, such as snakes and spiders.
The repeating pattern of high contrast seen in clusters of holes, for example, is similar to the pattern on the skin of many snakes and the pattern made by a spider’s dark legs against a lighter background.
‘We’re an incredibly visual species,’ says Vladislav Ayzenberg, a graduate student in the Lourenco lab and lead author of the PeerJ study.
‘Low-level visual properties can convey a lot of meaningful information.
‘These visual cues allow us to make immediate inferences – whether we see part of a snake in the grass or a whole snake – and react quickly to potential danger.’
It is well-established that viewing images of threatening animals generally elicits a fear reaction in viewers, associated with the sympathetic nervous system.
The heart and breathing rate goes up and the pupils dilate. This hyperarousal to potential danger is known as the fight-or-flight response.
The researchers wanted to test whether this same physiological response was associated with seemingly innocuous images of holes.
They used eye-tracking technology that measured changes in pupil size to differentiate the responses of study subjects to images of clusters of holes, images of threatening animals and neutral images.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY IN TRYPOPHOBIA POSTER ROW
Many people have never heard of trypophobia — but the makers of the show American Horror Story certainly have.
The phobia, which is not an official diagnosis from the American Psychiatric Association, is an intense revulsion at the sight of holes in an irregular pattern, and AHS seems keen to freak out anyone who has it with its new ad campaign.
Or at least, that’s what trypophobia sufferers think.
Several have taken to Twitter recently to rage against the show for triggering their phobia, calling AHS: Cult’s new promos ‘disgusting and irresponsible’.
Unlike images of snakes and spiders, images of holes elicited greater constriction of the pupils — a response associated with the parasympathetic nervous system and feelings of disgust.
‘On the surface, images of threatening animals and clusters of holes both elicit an aversive reaction,’ Ayzenberg says.
‘Our findings, however, suggest that the physiological underpinnings for these reactions are different, even though the general aversion may be rooted in shared visual-spectral properties.’
Unlike most other phobias, which bring on intense feelings of fear, trypophobia incites extreme repulsion and sometimes even the urge to vomit. Clusters of round shapes, such as the bubbles in a cup of coffee, can be a trigger
In contrast to a fight-or-flight response, gearing the body up for action, a parasympathetic response slows heart rate and breathing and constricts the pupils.
‘These visual cues signal the body to be cautious, while also closing off the body, as if to limit its exposure to something that could be harmful,’ Ayzenberg says.
The authors theorize that clusters of holes may be evolutionarily indicative of contamination and disease – visual cues for rotten or moldy food or skin marred by an infection.
The subjects involved in the experiments were college students who did not report having trypophobia.
‘The fact that we found effects in this population suggests a quite primitive and pervasive visual mechanism underlying an aversion to holes,’ Lourenco says.
People with trypophobia are known to feel distressed after seeing all sorts of hole-filled objects, such as a beehive or even a sponge.
And, in recent years, more extreme examples of these triggers have become common, including images edited to show human body parts filled with lotus-like holes, or similar impressions created using special effects makeup, as demonstrated in a tutorial shared on YouTube.
In another recent study, psychologists at the University of Kent recruited more than 300 people from trypophobia support groups to find out more about the condition.
They also included a comparison group of over 300 university students who do not suffer from trypophobia.
The participants were shown sixteen images of real objects that exhibit clusters of roughly circular shapes – eight of which showed clusters relating to various diseases, including rash marks, smallpox scars, or ticks.
In recent years, more extreme examples of these triggers have become common, including images edited to show human body parts filled with lotus-like holes, or similar impressions created using special effects makeup, as demonstrated in a tutorial shared on YouTube
The remaining eight photos were not disease related, instead including examples such as a lotus flower seed pod, or a brick wall with holes drilled into it.
While both groups indicated that they’d found the disease-related images unpleasant, only the trypophobic group reported that the disease-irrelevant images were extremely unpleasant.
Previous research has suggested that the condition may be linked to an evolutionary predisposition toward round shapes that may be found on poisonous animals, such as the blue-ringed octopus.
But, the new study instead suggests it may be an evolutionary response to infectious diseases.
It’s thought that the feeling of disgust plays a role in helping people avoid potentially infectious sources – and, this is the main sensation involved in trypophobia.
Scientists investigating trypophobia have discovered that there may be more to this condition than previously suspected, with new evidence suggesting it may be linked to a deeper-rooted anxiety of parasites, such as ticks (left) and infectious disease
While just a small number of trypophobic individuals described feelings relating to fear, many also reported that they’d experienced the sensation of itchy or ‘crawling’ skin, or the feeling of ‘bugs infesting the skin’
Many infectious diseases are known to cause clusters on the skin, including smallpox, measles, rubella, typhus, and scarlet fever, the researchers note.
And, ectoparasites such as scabies, ticks, and botflies can have similar effects.
The vast majority of the trypophobia participants reported disgust or disgust-related feelings, including nausea and the urge to vomit, after viewing the images, according to the researchers.
While just a small number of these individuals described feelings relating to fear, many also reported that they’d experienced the sensation of itchy or ‘crawling’ skin, or the feeling of ‘bugs infesting the skin.’
The findings suggest the ‘overgeneralized response’ seen in people with trypophobia leads them to experience the same type of aversion when viewing a lotus pod, for example, as they would when shown a cluster of ticks or lesions.