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Trypophobia Is a Fear of Holes

To study trypophobia, scientists went to the most obvious place: the trypophobia website and Facebook group

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It’s not that unusual to be afraid of falling into a hole. But a fear of holes in general? Well, that is pretty unusual. But it’s not unheard of. This fear has a name—trypophobia—and researchers recently took a closer look at the fear.

To study trypophobia, scientists went to the most obvious place: the trypophobia website and Facebook group. The website describes the fear this way:

Usually, people who have trypophobia are afraid of clustered holes in skin, meat, wood, plants, coral, sponges, mould, dried seed pods and honeycomb. These can make them feel that their skin is crawling, shudder, feel itchy and physically sick when seeing these images because they really find it disgusting and gross. Some of these people think that something might be living inside those holes and some of them are afraid that they might fall in these holes. This phobia makes them upset and it can trigger a panic attack that will give them an unpleasant and uncomfortable feeling like trembling, perspiration, shortness of breath, shaking, palpitations, dizziness and nausea.

Although the website also says, “Trypophobia is not a real phobia. Look at the official list of phobias, and this is not even on there. This is a word 4chan made up back in the day that ended up spreading to various parts of the web. It is however a very real and natural reaction.”

On the Facebook group, people share things that set them off. One woman asks: “Does anyone else have a problem with patterns caused by iron filings? Also those things which are made up of loads of pins, and you can press your face/hand into them to make a shape? *shudder*” Another says: “One coping technique that works for me: whenever I have the opportunity, I squash/destroy the pattern. I smashed underfoot some puffballs growing out of the lawn today, which was quite cathartic.”

But why are these people afraid of holes and clusters? Well, some element of phobias are irrational—brains seizing upon things they shouldn’t. But the researchers, Geoff Cole and Arnold Wilkins from the University of Essex, had one interaction with a man with trypophobia that led them to think that those who fear holes associate them with grave danger. Joe Palca at NPR explains:

But why would that particular characteristic make people’s skin crawl? The answer came to Cole one day when he was visited by a man who said he suffered from trypophobia. In the course of their conversation, the man revealed he had a phobic reaction every time he looked at a blue-ringed octopus.

Not knowing anything about blue-ringed octopuses, Cole called up some Web images while his visitor was there. One thing Cole learned from his search was that blue-ringed octopuses are extremely venomous.

When Cole looked up lots of other venomous animals, he found that many of them had spots and hole like patterns. In their paper, he and his colleagues write, “We argue that although sufferers are not conscious of the association, the phobia arises in part because the inducing stimuli share basic visual characteristics with dangerous organisms, characteristics that are low level and easily computed, and therefore facilitate a rapid nonconscious response.”

So while a pile of metal shavings, a hole in the ground or a clump of coral isn’t going to kill you, your brain doesn’t necessarily know that. These people should probably never move to Florida, where sinkholes do swallow people and buildings whole.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Why Some People Faint When They See Blood
Admitting That Big Ugly Spider Is Terrifying Will Make It Less Frightening

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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