Photograph by George Grall, Nat Geo Image Collection
Read Caption

Close up ripe and unripe seed pods of the Nelumbo nucifera lotus water lily. The plant is a commonly circulated image among trypophobia groups.

Photograph by George Grall, Nat Geo Image Collection

If This Photo Disgusts You, You May Have Trypophobia

A new study offers one theory for why trypophobia, or the fear of small holes, causes some people so much disgust.

Trypophobia might be one of the Internet's most talked about phobias that you haven't heard of by name. The term is Greek for "boring holes"—trypo—and "fear"—phobia—and amounts to a fear of clusters of small holes.

The term entered the popular lexicon around 2009 when it was coined by a student at SUNY-Albany who created a Facebook page for anecdotal and self-diagnosed incidences. Since then, interest in the phenomenon has skyrocketed.

Online forums on Reddit, Instagram, and Facebook serve as a seemingly schadenfreudian hub for people to express their shared revulsion while sharing images of the marked images.

(When I shared an image of a lotus flower on my Twitter account, responses ranged from people who were confused about why it was disturbing to those who were so disturbed they asked me to take it down.)

The term is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and mental health experts debate whether or not the affliction is a true phobia, with some opting more frequently to label it an idiosyncrasy, or unusual behavior. Much of the fear is self-diagnosed by those who claim the images cause them anything from mild discomfort to a feeling of wanting to vomit.

In a 2013 study simply titled "Fear of Holes" two researchers from the University of Essex were the first to academically tackle the odd fear. In their sample, they found 16 percent of the 286 adults tested had a visceral aversion to the patterns. They theorized that, because potential lethal animals like some spiders, snakes, and scorpions have similar markings, the aversion was an evolutionary adaptation.

A new study from the University of Kent published in the journal Cognition and Emotion puts forth another theory for why some people have such strong negative reactions to little clusters of holes.

"It's pretty well known that disgust helps us avoid infectious diseases and pathogens," said Tom Kupfer, the study's author. "The response to these images appear to be a disease avoidance response."

In other words, people who fear the sight of small clusters of holes could be feeling anxiety about parasites or disease that can easily spread from person to person. The researchers theorized that clusters of small holes present in diseases such as smallpox, measles, typhus, and others could cause an outsized reaction for trypophobes who saw similar patterns in everyday objects.

Testing a Theory

To test their hypothesis, the researchers recruited 300 self-diagnosed trypophobia sufferers from online groups and 300 university students who did not report having the phobia. Both groups then viewed 16 images—eight of which showed clusters relating to diseased body parts, and eight images that showed clusters that weren't related to disease, such as lotus pods and holes drilled in brick.

Each group reported feeling disgusted by the pictures of disease but only the trypophobic group found the nonhuman pictures made them uncomfortable. Of the group who responded negatively, they reported feelings of disgust and a sense that their skin was crawling more frequently than feelings of fear. Because participants overwhelming reported feeling disgusted over feeling fearful, the researchers theorized that aversion to disease agents more likely contributed to the phobia than a fear of lethal animals as previously theorized.

Coffee bubbles were one of the more common trypophobia triggers tested in the study.

Carol Mathews, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida who specializes in anxiety disorders, explained that one theory about why people develop phobias is an evolutionary aversion to dangerous objects. Fear of snakes, spiders, or heights, some of the most commonly reported phobias, may have served as a form of protection via aversion to dangerous situations.

"The argument is that all phobias at some level arose from an evolutionary adaptation," said Mathews. "[Trypophobia] does appear to be a real phenomenon."

"It's not something we see people need treatment for in clinics," she added.

Anatomy of Fear

While many phobias may serve a protective purpose, people can develop a phobia to almost anything. The online Phobia List catalogues phobias and lists everything from a fear of telephones ringing to fear of clouds. One of the common arguments against trypophobia as a disease is that, as the condition has become more widely discussed online, people are susceptible to suggestion that the images are repulsive.

"It's one of those things that probably existed for a long time and because of the Internet and ease of knowledge has become more of a known thing," said Mathews.

While she thinks the fear of parasites or disease is an interesting hypothesis, she adds that research to fully understand the condition is far from complete.