Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Trypophobia: Phobia or Influence?

A lotus plant seed pod

Does the sight of a lotus flower seed pod, aerated candy bar, soap bubbles or any cluster of holes give you a rapid heartbeat, cold sweat or crawling skin feeling? If so, you could be sufferer of the Internet-borne phobia – trypophobia.

In the early 2000s, a large number of netizens united over their common aversion to pictures of clusters of small holes, such as that of a beehive. The popularity of this phenomenon, called trypophobia, rooted from the growth of online image sharing that made people realize and discover their shared revulsion towards clusters of holes, causing minor reactions such as itchiness and discomfort to severe ones like sleeplessness and nausea. The non-existent term trypophobia, which appeared to have been coined by an unidentified Irish netizen in 2005, originated from the Greek word “trypo” – meaning, boring holes– and “phobia” which means irrational fear towards an object. Literally, trypophobia is a new, emerging type of phobia referring to the fear of holes such as those of the coral sponge.The idea of its existence went viral: self-identified trypophobes created their Facebook group and YouTube videos. In online communities and blogs, many people claiming to be a trypophobe shares that they experience nausea, sleepless nights, and intense anxiety whenever they see photographs of clustered holes. Accordingly, the images haunt them, preventing them to live peacefully. The official site of trypophobes, trypophobia.com, was created by Masai Andrews, who also founded the Facebook group page. "I started the website and Facebook page because I suspected this was a very common phobia and I wanted a place where people could compile information," Andrews says. "It is my hope that one day the academic and scientific communities will, at the very least, acknowledge the aversion to holes and certain patterns." For almost a decade, the so-called phobia was nothing more than an Internet phenomenon. This Internet phenomenon became so widely popular that researchers finally took an in-depth study regarding it and have found explanation on its validity and possible cause.

In spite of its extensiveness, the field of Psychology does not consider it as an official phobia yet.This is why the term trypophobia does not even exist in the dictionary and books or manuals regarding mental disorders or phobias which the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says must primarily interfere "significantly with the person's normal routine." In fact, different Psychological Associations in the world do not acknowledge it as an official phobia either. Accordingly, the discomfort experienced by people who claim themselves as trypophobes were simply the product of influence and nothing more. Furthermore, an amateur etymologist also disregarded the word trypophobia and did not include the word in his list of phobia in the World Wide Web.


One of the most prominent experiments is conducted by Geoff Cole and Arnold Wilkins, two psychologists at the University of Essex in England. They showed a picture of a lotus seed head to 286 adults aged 18-55 years old, wherein 11% of men and 18% of women described the seed head as “uncomfortable or even repulsive to look at,” indicating a minor level of revulsion.

Cole and Wilkins theorized that the visual structure of the image might contributed at least part of the unease. At the end of the experiment, they analyzed a set of photographs that induce trypophobia and images that don’t. They found that most of the aversion-inducing pictures shared an underlying structure that incorporates small, high-contrast features such as dots or stripes, which is usually seen in the skin coloration of many species of dangerous or poisonous animals, which past studies have found that most people find this pattern uncomfortable to look at. Although the discovery of the effect of these spatial characteristics provide a substantial explanation to the discomfort caused by the pictures, Wilkins points out that something deeper is needed to explain the intensity of the revulsion. This might be an association with skin lesions such as scars or sores. Thus, the emerging story is that these fear may be another form of the universial aversion to scars and sores – an evolved trait that possibly have helped our ancestors avoid germs and disease, which extended to objects like the lotus seed pod.

Other experts provide in-depth explanation with regard to the field of psychology. According to Martin Antony, a psychologist at Ryerson University in Toronto, past-president of the Canadian Psychological Association and author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook, he wasn't a bit surprised to hear that some people manifest severe aversion to clustered holes simply because "people can be afraid of absolutely anything." It is generally accepted that fear and phobia is both caused by internal and external factors. External factors that contribute to such fears and phobias include traumatic experiences (getting bitten by a dog leading to a fear of dogs, for example), observational learning (watching others be afraid of heights), and information and instruction (learning to fear being alone in the dark after watching too many horror movies). Internal factors such as various biological factors like an inherited predisposition to anxiety also play a major role in the establishment of fear and phobia. "Although the studies on causes of fears have all focused on more common ones, such as spiders and snakes, there is no reason to think that different factors would be responsible for more unusual fears,” Antony adds.

On top of these aforementioned factors, one explanation seems to complete the missing piece of puzzle. Experts believe that fear and phobia originate from past experiences of influences by others. “By referring back to the trypophobia pages in different social networking websites, many people stated that they do not know that they have this kind of phobia until they have visited the page or read something about it,” PopScience stated in one of the site’s articles. In fact, an expert pointed out the fact that “what we know as trypophobia today is merely a contagious emotion of people towards another.” He claimed that the disgust of others may or may not affect your personal perspective, as aforementioned. This is why psychologists believe that such phobia does not exist, but postulates that the reaction is just a relation of fear and disgust, since recent studies showed that fear and disgust go hand in hand.

“Primarily, what they feel is merely a discomfort and disgust on what they see – it is just a gross to be specific and not a phobia,” he added.

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