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Why Do So Many People Have a Fear of Holes?

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June 10, 2016, 2:30pm

Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.

I still remember the genesis of my trypophobia. One day in the second grade, I stumbled on a nest of yellow jackets, filled to the brim with milky pustules of larvae. I'm not especially frightened by wasps, but that cluster of worm-filled pores will linger in my mind's eye for eternity.

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As time progressed, my trypophobia—an irrational fear of hole clusters—only grew worse. A nature show featuring the Surinam toad, a harmless little amphibian who carries her babies on her back, would escalate this fear. Seed pods, egg spawns, mushroom arrays, and the abominable "lotus boob" (possibly NSFW) Photoshop were each more paralyzing than the next.

Paper wasp nest. Image: Flickr/Andrew_Writer

Trypophobia isn't a clinically diagnosed phobia. You won't find any mention of it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but its pervasiveness, particularly online, is undeniable. (I reached out to the American Psychological Association regarding the addition of trypophobia to the manual but have not heard back as of the publication of this story.)

Yet, for a phenomenon so notoriously widespread, we understand next to nothing about the biological mechanisms behind it. Some critics even speculate that it doesn't exist. This all begs the question: If trypophobia's origins are really this nebulous, why is it still a thing?

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Unlike other notable phobias, trypophobia is relatively new, at least in the English lexicon.

According to Snopes, a disturbing image of a woman's breast containing lotus seed pods was distributed via email sometime around 2003. The doctored photo was allegedly sent along with "a copypasta story about an anthropologist whose breast was infected with larvae during an expedition in South America," according to KnowYourMeme. However, I have not been able to independently verify this information.

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The actual word "trypophobia" almost certainly first appeared on a now-archived Geocities page called "A Phobia of Holes," on May 5, 2005. Its webmaster seems to have reached out to the Oxford English Dictionary about the neologism, and possibly even attempted to submit it for consideration as a new word. Until it shut down, the page functioned as an online support forum for "all of us weirdoes who have an irrational fear of HOLES."

Several years later, trypophobia repeatedly popped up on Urban Dictionary, and in several YouTube videos. A Wikipedia page was proposed for the phobia on October 2, 2012, and according to the subject's talk page, has since been plagued with deletion requests, discussions of image censorship, and debates over trypophobia's status as a medically recognized condition. Today, there are many internet forums and self-help sites dedicated to the phobia.

Image: Google Trends

The only comprehensive study of trypophobia was published in 2013 to the journal Psychological Science. Aptly titled "Fear of Holes," the survey identified a specific visual trigger that appears to make trypophobic images disturbing to so many of us.

Psychologists Arnold Wilkins and Geoff Cole at the University of Essex's Centre for Brain Science argued that hole clusters and their permutations share a key spectral feature with some of the world's deadliest animals. Our fear, they propose, is not so much a conscious reaction to grotesque imagery, but an evolved defense against creatures that might harm us.

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Objectively, there's not much that scorpions and venomous snakes share in common with lotus pods or Swiss cheese. But on a spectral level, the study notes, all of these things possess high contrast energy at mid-range spatial frequencies. The heightened contrast and level of detail contained within trypophobic images make them physiologically stressful to process.

More simply, humans are especially sensitive to trypophobic images because their composition is uncomfortable to look at.

"One can analyze images in terms of their Fourier components—finding out which spatial frequencies make up the image and what the amplitude is at each frequency," Wilkins told me. "Uncomfortable images tend to have a different function with too much energy at mid-spatial frequencies, where the visual system is most sensitive."

Examples of low versus high spatial frequency. Image: New York University/Michael Landy

Going one step further in this theory, early in the evolutionary history of our species, humans would have benefitted from a rapid response to animals that exhibited these optical patterns. Our instantaneous processing of these perceived threats—such as snakes, or even contagious skin lesions—would have been selected for due to its high survival value. Trypophobia just happens to be a coincidence.

But even Wilkins acknowledges that wading into evolutionary psychology is a risky endeavor, and one he avoided. "It's difficult, if not impossible, to test many evolutionary theories, seductive as they may be," he added.

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The controversial theories of evolutionary psychology have been applied to explain other common phobias, such as ophiophobia: the fear of snakes. Similar to Wilkin's study of trypophobia, a paper published in the Association for Psychological Science attempted to discern whether humans possess a rapid detection mechanism for snakes, which could innately predispose certain people to be afraid of them. What the authors reported was that both adults and children were able to identify images of snakes more rapidly than other objects.

"I think it is possible that a heightened attention to things like snakes—which we see in my research—might make snake fear easier to learn. But they do have to be learned. Infants and children are not afraid of snakes," the study's co-author Vanessa LoBue, currently an assistant professor at Rutgers University, told me.

However, LoBue's research elicited some criticism from members of the scientific community who claimed the study actually presented the "universal" fear of snakes as an evolutionary adaptation, rather than a complex and personal attitude toward them.

Blue ringed octopus. Image: Wikipedia

Anthropologist and PLoS One blogger Greg Downey wrote of the study: "Why does this stuff drive me nuts? Well, first of all, it's evolutionary psychology's typical modus operandi: notice something normative in your life, assume that it's universal, and then make up an evolutionary 'just so' story that 'explains' one's own normative construct."

Furthermore, even LoBue's own findings indicate that people aren't pre-programmed with a fear of snakes. To the contrary, she found that children ages 18 to 36 months actually have an avid interest in snakes, and in some cases are even drawn to them.

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Trypophobia and ophiophobia are both irrational and extremely common. And perhaps it's this latter quality that makes us desire an explanation for them. In a way, seeking out a single evolutionary impetus for a phobia is less complicated than diagnosing all of the societal factors that might have shaped it.

Those of us seriously afflicted with trypophobia are unlikely to get better without the help of a therapist or physician. According to the Mayo Clinic, medications such as beta blockers and antidepressants are sometimes prescribed to control the symptoms associated with phobias, however, cognitive behavioral therapy can allow patients to manage their fears in the long-term.

At its core, trypophobia as we know it seems to be a unique byproduct of both biology and the viral potential of the internet.

"The internet has made it possible for people throughout the world to share experiences, including those of symptoms. The result is that people with rare conditions can discover that they are 'not alone,'" Wilkins told me.

"Trypophobia has probably been exacerbated by some of the images that have been Photoshopped to render them particularly aversive. However, trypophobia is most definitely not simply an internet phenomenon. Many individuals have given us histories that show that they experienced trypophobia long before the internet existed."