Trypophobia Is The Weirdest Fear You Might Actually Have

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

    Your Reaction May Not Actually Be Fear - It's Disgust
    Photo: The Devil Saint™ / flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    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 Relatively Unstudied But Tons Of People Suffer From it
    Photo: elineart / flickr / CC BY 2.0

    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

    Evolution May Be Responsible For Trypophobia
    Photo: Froschmann / flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    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

    Trypophobia Could Be Related To Poisonous Animals
    Photo: Sylke Rohrlach / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    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. 

  • Can We Blame Math?

    Can We Blame Math?
    Photo: Emilie chen / flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

    If you hated math in school, here's another reason to keep on hating it - some researchers believe that the terror images of holes can incite in us can actually be blamed on math

    How? Because math requires a fair amount of effort (that is, oxygen) from our brains. The brain uses 20% of our energy, and because our body doesn't like to use excessive amounts of energy, images that require mathematics will cause discomfort. Basically, images of holes stress out our brains. If trypophobia is related to disgust, could it be that our dislike of images that require more oxygen/energy is another evolutionary development? Some researchers think that in people with trypophobia, the reaction that is designed to keep us safe from dangerous things (like skin lesions or, maybe, calculus?) is overactive. 

    Disgust, which is controlled by our parasympathetic nervous system, causes a slower heart rate, slower breathing, and constricts our pupils (whereas our fight-or-flight response from fear does the opposite). Our body is effectively closing itself off, conserving energy rather than using it, when it sees clusters of holes or bumps. 

  • "American Horror Story: Cult" Brought Trypophobia Into The Limelight

    "American Horror Story: Cult" Brought Trypophobia Into The Limelight
    Photo: Genevieve719 / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The seventh season of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story featured a main character, Ally Mayfair-Richards (played by Sarah Paulson) who suffered from trypophobia. Though the show never named the condition out loud, Paulson's character very clearly was triggered by things like coral or souffle, and advertisements for the show featured images of holes superimposed on faces that anyone would find disgusting - trypophobic or not. Though the show may have made matters worse for some people suffering from trypophobia, as the images circulated on social media, others are glad that at least the world is talking about a condition that has been very real to them for years.