“We think the human system may have evolved because of an unconscious visual structure, not from exposure to poisonous animals,” Cole says. He and Wilkins posit that trypophobic images set off a “trigger feature” in some people, much like the “fight-or-flight” response to the perceived danger of a snake.
In a separate experiment, the pair showed people slide shows of various images and monitored their brain activity via functional MRI scans. “You get an abnormally high response with the trypophobic images,” Wilkins says. “It’s like these poisonous things are warning us that they’re poisonous,” Cole says. Trypophobic patterns, such as those that can be found on the skin of snakes and spiders, are indicative of poisonous predators, and some people are especially primed to respond to that. Wilkins and Cole hope to soon figure out why.
“It’s interesting from a practical point of view because so many people have it,” Cole says. “But also it’s interesting from a theoretical point of view why it occurs and what it says about human evolution.”
Others suggest that trypophobia is simply the manifestation of collective disgust toward certain images.
The aversion to holes in organic material could more simply be explained by a dislike of sights we associate with disease and decay, says Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of “The Anti-Anxiety Workbook.” It’s not necessarily cause to consider the condition a true phobia, he says.
“People can learn to be afraid of anything,” Antony says. “It’s not unusual for people to have aversions to imagery or sounds or textures. I’ve seen people terrified of Q-tips.”
To Masai Andrews, a 29-year-old agent at the New York State Office of Mental Health in Albany, trypophobia is very real. As a child, he says, he had to avoid looking into shower heads and was deeply disturbed by worm holes left in the mud after a night of rain. He says he once vomited at the sight of a doctored image of a lotus seedpod online.
“I can go all day subconsciously averting my eyes from, say, the tread on someone’s shoe that I find revolting or the undulating fish gills in the tank at the doctor’s office,” Andrews wrote in an e-mail. In 2009, Andrews created Trypophobia.com, a Web site dedicated to raising awareness about the condition, and a trypophobia Facebook group that has grown to more than 6,600 members.
Wilkins and Cole concede that it’s too soon to draw major conclusions from their findings. For now, they are outlining a desensitization regimen whereby trypophobes gradually expose themselves to more disturbing imagery as a way to overcome their anxieties, Wilkins says. “But it probably won’t be possible to remove the uncomfortableness altogether.”
Thomas is a science and technology writer in the San Francisco Bay area.