Does This Image Freak You Out? Here’s Why
Carol Clark, 9 Jan 18
       

(Credit: Getty Images)

Trypophobia, commonly known as “fear of holes,” is linked to a physiological response more associated with disgust than fear, a new study suggests.

Trypophobia is not officially recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Many people, however, report feeling an aversion to clusters of holes—such as those of a honeycomb, a lotus seed pod, or even aerated chocolate.

“Some people are so intensely bothered by the sight of these objects that they can’t stand to be around them,” says Stella Lourenco, a psychologist at Emory University. “The phenomenon, which likely has an evolutionary basis, may be more common than we realize.”


A lotus seed pod. (Credit: emmaville/Flickr)

Previous research linked trypophobic reactions to some of the same visual spectral properties shared by images of evolutionarily threatening animals, such as snakes and spiders. The repeating pattern of high contrast seen in clusters of holes, for example, is similar to the pattern on the skin of many snakes and the pattern made by a spider’s dark legs against a lighter background.

“We’re an incredibly visual species,” says Vladislav Ayzenberg, a graduate student in the Lourenco lab and lead author of the study, which appears in PeerJ.

“Low-level visual properties can convey a lot of meaningful information. These visual cues allow us to make immediate inferences—whether we see part of a snake in the grass or a whole snake—and react quickly to potential danger,” Ayzenberg says.

It is well-established that when we see images of threatening animals it generally elicits a fear reaction, associated with the sympathetic nervous system. Our heart and breathing rate goes up and our pupils dilate. This hyperarousal to potential danger is known as the fight-or-flight response.

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