What is trypophobia and why on Earth are people so scared of holes?

Bad news. You might have trypophobia. Have you ever been freaked out by the inside of a Wispa bar, a lotus flower seed cup or even the home screen on an Apple Watch?

Thousands of people are claiming to suffer from trypophobia, a condition that doesn’t officially exist. Read on to find out what it is, and what we know about it to date… 

What is trypophobia?

Does the picture above – a lotus flower seed cup – fill you with dread? It shouldn’t do; the plant is completely harmless. But the arrangement of its seed holes has been known to make people feel extremely uncomfortable. You probably don’t want to click the gallery just in case.

Welcome to the strange world of trypophobia: an irrational fear of objects with a series of clustered holes. Think honeycomb, or the patterns that emerge in sea coral. Sometimes, even circular shapes are enough to induce disgust in the sufferer – like the patterns on a poison dart frog’s back.[gallery:12]

One common concern expressed by trypophobes is not knowing what the holes contain – something with which the Suriname toad, which gives birth through holes in its torso, doesn’t help:

The limited research suggests that 11% of men and 18% of women would find the above image “uncomfortable or even repulsive to look at”. In a 2015 poll of fears and phobias by Ranker, trypophobia sits a respectable 11th: behind clowns, deep water and spiders, but ahead of flying, sharks and the dentist.

Even music videos aren’t immune. The Chemical Brothers’ video for Wide Open features a woman gradually getting gradually more hollow and ‘holey’. YouTube’s comments are full of trypophobia sufferers expressing discomfort. “I can’t look at the leg man its making me shake,” said one commenter.

Where does the word trypophobia come from?

A phobia obviously refers to any kind of psychological fear, while trypo is derived from the Greek for “punching holes”. Know Your meme claims the term was coined in 2005, having previously been called ‘Holephobia’ on a Geocities page. It first appeared on Urban Dictionary in 2008.[gallery:7]

Is trypophobia real?

Well, yes and no.

Yes in the sense that a significant number of people feel uneasy when looking at trigger images, such as the lotus flower seed cup, or the bubbles that form in boiling milk.[gallery:5]

But that’s not the full story. As mentioned above, trypophobia is a colloquial term that emerged online in the mid-2000s. It wasn’t studied academically until 2013, and it doesn’t appear in the American Psychiatric Association’s

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

In fact, until the first study on the disorder was completed, the topic kept being deleted from Wikipedia, with one editor describing it as a “likely hoax and borderline patent nonsense”.[gallery:9]

In 2011, when Popular Science covered the online phenomenon, none of the ten psychologists the author contacted for the story had heard of it, and nobody would speculate on biological underpinnings behind it.

As recently as 2013, psychiatrist Carole Matthews from the University of California wasn’t convinced by the internet’s self-diagnosis, arguing that websites’ tendency to doctor images of human skin with parasites and skin conditions with the holes on lotus flowers and cantaloupes could condition disgust in anyone. She told NPR: “There might really be people out there with phobias to holes, because people can really have a phobia to anything. But, just [from] reading what’s on the internet, that doesn’t seem to be what people actually have.”

Whether real or not, it certainly has enough people spooked to ensure high search volumes. To celebrate Haloween 2017, security company YourLocalSecurity discovered that trypophobia was the most searched for phobia in four US states. That’s California, New Mexico, Texas and Vermont – justin case you wanted to go and hang out with fellow sufferers.what_is_trypophobia

Okay, it’s a bit of fun, and their methodology is deeply suspect, but it does at least show a lot of people are interested in the fear – official or not.

Can trypophobia be triggered by technology?

Given that anything with patterns of clustered holes has been known to trigger trypophobia, it’s no wonder that technology has occasionally alienated its potential fans. Take the Apple Watch’s UI, for example:


Smart design, or trypophobia minefield? Possibly both.

Maybe this explains why some commentators feel nauseated when we discuss Apple products.

Other products might not be safe either. The Moov Now fitness band made one member of the Alphr team feel a little uncomfortable…[gallery:15]

What studies have been done into trypophobia?

But that’s beginning to change, in part due to so many people self-identifying with a condition that seemed to have no basis in medical history.

The first study, entitled Fear of Holes, from the Centre for Brain Science at the University of Essex in 2013, investigated why some images seemed to induce a more visceral reaction in trypophobes than others. Researchers Geoff Cole and Arnold Wilkins took 76 triggering images from trypophobia.com and 76 control photographs of holes, and discovered that those with the strongest impact appeared to share certain characteristics: a high contrast of colour and a particular spatial distribution.

This indicates that it may be an evolutionary defence, given that it’s a look that many dangerous animals – he blue-ringed octopus, for example – share:[gallery:14]

In 2015, Cole and Wilkins teamed up with graduate student An Trong Dinh Le, a self-identified trypophobia sufferer, to develop a symptom questionnaire. They discovered that reducing the contrast in an image made it easier for a sufferer to view it. 

Writing in The Conversation recently, Professor Wilkins said triggering images tend to have mathematical properties that “cannot be processed efficiently by the brain and therefore require more brain oxygenation”.

He said: “Paul Hibbard and I proposed that the discomfort occurs precisely because people avoid looking at the images because they require excessive brain oxygenation. (The brain uses about 20% of the body’s energy, and its energy usage needs to be kept to a minimum.)”

Any other possible causes?


One theory is that by talking about trypophobia and sharing images, the phobia is more likley to spread. If that’s the case… sorry about that.

One subscriber to that theory is Suffolk University’s Daniel J. Glass, who told Buzzfeed News: “Looking at all these photos that other people find disgusting, it’s easy to think, Oh, yeah…that IS gross.”

“But why are so many people so prone to find these images gross at all? It would be much harder to get people on board with being disgusted by a picture of baby kittens.”

In other words, that might be part of it, but it doesn’t completely explain the phenomenon.

What are the symptoms of trypophobia?

This isn’t as straightforward a question as it first appears, as different levels of severity are felt depending upon the patient.

Upon seeing a triggering image, trypophobes tend to feel a visceral physical response: they may shudder, feel their skin crawl or experience symptoms akin to a panic attack – itchy skin, sweating, nausea and palpitations.[gallery:1]

Is there a test for trypophobia?

Since it’s not an officially recognised condition, finding a definitive test is hard work. As far as I can tell, the test developed by Cole and Wilkins isn’t available online.

That said, there are a number of unofficial tests that simply involve looking at images of “things with holes”, which gradually increase in unpleasantness for sufferers. 

If you feel uncomfortable looking at the pictures in this article, rather than totally baffled, then you should consider yourself trypophobic.[gallery:8]

Is there a cure for trypophobia?

Again, this is difficult to answer, because the condition that isn’t officially recognised. However, in the press release from the University of Essex reporting on Cole and Wilkins’ initial research, the researchers suggest a tried-and-tested psychological method used to treat various phobias: gradual repeat exposure.

Dr Cole looked at the images so much that he became desensitised to them, the release says.


Additionally, one Reddit reader offers this advice to people who suffer “skin crawling” feelings: “Rub your own skin. With the full surface of your hand palms, go on and rub your arms, your neck, anywhere you feel the piloerection (goosebumps).

“You will notice that the eeriness is actually replaced with a satisfactory sensation of comfort, because what you’re doing is overriding the anomalous data that your visual cortex interpreted from the flawed texture picture with real data … as you rub your own skin, [you will] find out that, in fact, you do not possess such lesions.”

If these pictures have made you feel queasy, and for some reason you want more of the same, then pop by the Trypophobia subreddit, where over 18,000 subscribers reguarly share pictures designed to make each other anxious for some reason…

Images by Elias Gayles, Ben SutherlandPeter Shanks, Dice Kit, Ben Dalton AmberNectar13, Angell Williams, Stephen  DepolloET and William Wan, used under Creative Commons

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