Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Barnacles are disgusting. I’ve never been able to stare at them for too long without my skin feeling itchy or without a creeping feeling of nausea making its way up my body. I get this way around certain kinds of coral and the English chocolate bar Aero, too.
These reactions are apparently the result of trypophobia, which is the unofficial name for a fear of clustered holes. And as bizarre sounding as my aforementioned confession may seem, I am far from the only one who reacts this way.
Data and testimonials about trypophobia have been accumulating on virtual support groups and forums for years. One Facebook group for sufferers has over 6,000 members, all of whom are encouraged not to post pictures, presumably because it is supposed to be a safe space. YouTube hosts a collection of videos whereby viewers can test their level of discomfort regarding commonly accepted trypophobic triggers, like lotus seeds and honeycombs, to see if they, too, could be considered sufferers.
Despite copious information online, the scientific community at large is reluctant to officially recognize this phobia. Even Wikipedia was, until recently, skeptical of its authenticity, deleting the phobia’s page under suspicion that it was nothing but a hoax. I only found out that there was a name for my visceral hatred of barnacles through a Popular Science article from 2011.
But the fact of the matter is that it is a real disgust others and I experience, whether or not science wants to accept it. So given that our experiences are authentic, the major question is, what causes such a bizarre feeling of discomfort around holes? What purpose does it serve in the human psyche? Recent research out of the University of Essex suggests that there may be an ancient evolutionary basis for trypophobia.
Dr. Geoff Cole and Professor Arnold Wilkins are psychological academics who focus on vision. Their recent research on trypophobia, published in this month’s copy of Psychological Science, examines trypophobic and other discomforting images in order to assess precisely why clustered holes give certain people the Fear.
What they found through four experiments was that images depicting trypophobic objects, like lotus flowers, and images depicting poisonous or dangerous animals, such as the blue ring octopus and snakes, share a particular visual property.
“Such images show comparatively high contrast energy at midrange spatial frequncies,” wrote Cole and Wilkins.
This led the researchers to the idea that this property has survival value. We need to recognize poisonous animals for our own safety. In order to do so most efficiently, such recognition needs to take place below the surface of consciousness, as conscious awareness would simply take too long. So we recognize spectral patterns that correlate with poisonous animals, rather than the poisonous animals themselves, and these patterns are also seen in clusters of holes.
According to Cole, “these findings suggest that there may be an ancient evolutionary part of the brain telling people that they are looking at a poisonous animal.”
Also of note, the two found that it is not just self-proclaimed trypophobics who experience discomfort around holes. In one experiment, they discovered that members of the general population react poorly to trypophobic images as well.
Now that we have some sort of explanation for why holes are so gross, the next question should be how to cure this unusual fear, or at the very least abate it. Cole suggests exposure therapy—he himself previously felt discomfort looking at clustered holes, but since his research required him to look at many triggering images, he got over it. I don’t know about that. The image at the top of this page is enough to make sure I won't ever click on this post again. Blech.