On Web sites and blogs, self-diagnosed trypophobes share tales of vomiting, sleep loss and anxiety attacks at the sight of such objects as honeycombs and rotting wood. They say the fears are haunting and disruptive of their daily lives.
But the medical world hasn’t yet embraced the phobia as real. Trypophobia isn’t listed in any major dictionary or in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Attempts to add trypophobia to the Oxford English Dictionary and even to establish a Wikipedia page have been rebuffed because there hasn’t been any research published on the subject. A Wikipedia editor who deleted an entry on trypophobia in 2009 noted that trypophobia is “likely hoax and borderline patent nonsense.”
Tammy Swallow Batten, a 38-year-old paralegal from North Carolina said that even her therapist was dismissive of her fears, telling her “to get more exposure to holes and it wouldn’t affect me anymore.”
“No one really takes it seriously,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I think that therapists are skeptical of the impact this phobia has on everyday life.”
Wilkins, an expert on visual stress, and an Essex colleague, Geoff Cole, are hoping to change that. They say they are the first scientists to investigate the visual elements behind the phobia. Their study is currently under peer review by the journal Psychological Science.
“Trypophobia touches on so many different areas — phobias, evolution and ancient selection pressures, psychology, visual stress, rapid object recognition and neuroscience,” says Cole, who proposed the idea of the study to Wilkins after reading about the condition on the Internet.
Phobias can develop for a variety of reasons. They can be learned (a fear of heights triggered by seeing other people be scared of heights, for example), the result of traumatic experience (a fear of dogs that stems from being being bitten by a dog) or the result of biology (people who are, say, prone to anxiety). Wilkins and Cole believe trypophobia has biological roots.
But thus far, most of their research has focused on identifying what types of images set off these reactions rather than why. In 2011, the pair conducted a series of experiments to discern the extent to which trypophobic images disturb people. They showed a group of people pictures — of rotting tree trunks, holey cheese and the lotus seedpod — interspersed with images of landscapes and other features of nature. Participants marked whether each image made them feel any discomfort.