Have you felt your skin crawl when you see aerated chocolate or a sponge? What about boiling milk? Barnacles? Soap bubbles? If any of those things have made you queasy, sweaty, or otherwise perturbed, then you may have trypophobia. Anything with small holes, particularly in clusters, can trigger trypophobia symptoms.
Is trypophobia real? The facts about trypophobia are up for debate; the condition didn't make its way into the modern lexicon until the first decade of the 2000s and it is still not medically recognized as a phobia at the time of publication. That doesn't change how real trypophobia is for many people, though, and its recent portrayal in American Horror Story: Cult gave a graphic look into the causes of trypophobia.
Though some professionals see trypophobia as a fake fear stoked by image-sharing on the internet, the trypophobia community is slowing gaining ground in the medical community. A few recent studies indicate that the phobia isn't so much of a traditional fear-based phobia, but rather a reaction of disgust rooted in evolution.
Your Reaction May Not Actually Be Fear - It's Disgust
One recent study showed participants pictures of trypophobia-triggering images and measured their pupil sizes. The study found that even among people who said they didn't have trypophobia, they still reacted to the images. Reactions were consistent with disgust, but not fear. The reactions for fear and disgust come from two different parts of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system, respectively.
For those who suffer from the condition, this delineation between fear and disgust may not matter much. However, knowing that holes don't produce actual fear, but rather disgust, could be useful when treating trypophobia. Bottom line, if someone has as phobia of spiders and you show them a picture of a spider, they will have a very different reaction than someone with trypophobia has when shown a picture of holes. Trypophobia doesn't trigger our fight-or-flight response, differentiating it from different "true" phobias.
Trypophobia Is Relatively Unstudied But Tons Of People Suffer From it
Trypophobia is not recognized as a phobia by the American Psychiatric Association, and it wasn't even described on the web until 2005 by Louise, an unsuspecting Irish woman who probably had no idea that she was about to launch a movement. For years, the Wikipedia page on trypophobia kept getting taken down because of the belief that it wasn't real. Not surprisingly, science hasn't given us much research on trypophobia, and the first study wasn't until 2013. However, the condition is more common than you might imagine, affecting about 40 million Americans.
That being said, the medical definition of a phobia is something that interferes with your daily life. And while people with trypophobia definitely have severe reactions to pictures of holes, it doesn't seem like most are prohibited from going about their daily lives.
Evolution May Be Responsible For Trypophobia
Trypophobia's relationship to disgust rather than fear has implications for our understanding of evolution. That fear has roots in evolution makes sense - being afraid of getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger would have kept our prehistoric relatives alive longer. Disgust, however, may be equally rooted in our survival instinct. Trypophobia could be evolution's reaction to diseased people (skin lesions, for example) and things that were otherwise contaminated (like rotting food). Having a disgust reaction to holes and bumps could have been part of evolution's strategy to keep us away from things that could make us sick. It's probably a good thing we evolved to be grossed out by someone with a parasitical infection, right?
This hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that people with trypophobia seem to be particularly repulsed when there are holes or clustered bumps on skin - a quick image search will show holes superimposed onto skin, seemingly with the sole goal of triggering someone with the condition. The image above is a coral reef because if you want to see trypophobia imposed on skin, you'll have to search at your own risk. It is not - repeat not - a pretty sight.
Likewise, holes in anything natural - like a coral reef, for example - seem to be bothersome as well. One expert says that holes in a natural object can seem particularly, well, unnatural. When something in nature looks a little off to us, it could trigger our brains to believe that something is wrong with it in a way that could be quite dangerous. Whether that fear is confounded or not doesn't matter; we have already made the association.
Trypophobia Could Be Related To Poisonous Animals
Sure, being grossed out or afraid of a horrific parasitical infection can make perfect sense when we think about our evolutionary reaction. But why are those with trypophobia terrified of seemingly innocuous images?
The simple explanation is that our fear has become so deeply embedded that we transfer it onto seemingly innocuous images. That answer didn't satisfy researchers, and further investigation showed the most images that solicited the strongest reactions all had something in common - they were high-contrast colors with a "particular spatial distribution."
What does this mean? Picture the blue-ring octopus, shown here. Or how about a poison dart frog? It could all go back to evolution - researchers say that poisonous animals, like these two, fit the bill for high-contrast colors in a "particular spatial distribution." If our ancient ancestors were freaked out by a poison dart frog, that would have been a good thing - it meant they had a healthy amount of fear necessary to stay alive longer.