Trypophobia Research Sheds Light on Human Reactions to Visual Stimuli

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Some individuals experience an unusual aversion to tiny, clustered holes, a phenomenon known as trypophobia. Visual triggers for trypophobia encompass various objects and patterns, including lotus seed pods, bubbles on a pancake griddle, and even the clustered camera lenses on iPhones. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of the population finds these images uncomfortable to look at, and the reactions they elicit range from feelings of repulsion and disgust to itching and nausea.

Intriguingly, trypophobia affects both adults and children, with some individuals experiencing it as early as 4 or 5 years old. Nate Pipitone, an associate professor of psychology at Florida Gulf Coast University, has been studying trypophobia for several years. He suggests that this aversion may be an adaptive response to avoid potential infectious diseases. Researchers have explored two main evolutionary theories to understand the origins of trypophobia.

First, some venomous creatures, like tarantulas with their eight eyes, exhibit trypophobic patterns, potentially leading to the aversion as a protective mechanism. Additionally, several skin diseases, such as smallpox, create clusters of circular lesions resembling trypophobic patterns, associating these patterns with health risks. 

According to the Washington Post, the discomfort caused by trypophobic images may relate to how certain individuals process basic visual information. Studies indicate that the images that make people most uncomfortable tend to exhibit a specific visual property: high contrast. Dark holes against a light background are more likely to evoke discomfort, while holes that appear more washed out usually do not. The circular pattern is also crucial in provoking trypophobia. 

Interestingly, many venomous creatures, such as the blue-ringed octopus, exhibit the characteristic visual property associated with trypophobia. Some researchers argue that this reaction may stem from a subconscious reflex rather than a learned fear response. Due to the complexity of trypophobia, Pipitone is not confident that it would respond well to psychological interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy. The simplest solution for individuals who experience trypophobia is to avoid such images whenever possible.

In fact, Pipitone mentioned that some students in his lab have opted out of trypophobia projects due to their own reactions. Another theory about trypophobia shifts the focus from evolutionary origins to the power of suggestion. If individuals are primed to search for a trypophobic image after being told it might induce itchiness, they may indeed experience itching simply because they were primed to do so. This theory suggests that the context in which people encounter trypophobic images can significantly influence their reactions. 

It’s worth noting that classifying trypophobia as a phobia, in the traditional psychological sense, may not be entirely accurate. While trypophobia is often associated with disgust rather than fear, it does not neatly fit into established psychiatric diagnoses. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a guide used by clinicians to diagnose mental health disorders, a phobia diagnosis requires fear or anxiety around a specific trigger strong enough to cause significant distress or functional impairment.

Most people who experience trypophobia can still go about their daily lives despite finding trypophobic images repulsive. The phenomenon of trypophobia has implications beyond individual experiences. Researchers are actively working to decipher specific configurations of clusters, textures, or colors that trigger trypophobia.

This research aims to positively inform the design of various items, such as clothing or buildings. On the flip side, some filmmakers intentionally incorporate trypophobic patterns in their work to evoke discomfort in viewers. For example, the character Jason Voorhees from the “Friday the 13th” series wears a hockey mask with tiny holes, creating an oddly disturbing effect. In 2018’s “Black Panther,” the antagonist Killmonger displayed tiny keloid scars on his torso, triggering trypophobia in some viewers. 

Trypophobia serves as a compelling example of the diversity in how individuals perceive and process the world around them. While some people may experience distress when exposed to specific visual stimuli, others remain unaffected. This phenomenon underscores the importance of recognizing and respecting individual differences, particularly in contexts where people’s experiences may vary. 



The study of trypophobia sheds light on the complex nature of human reactions to visual stimuli. It also highlights the need for understanding and acknowledging individual differences, which extend beyond this specific aversion to clustered holes. As we navigate a world with diverse perspectives and sensitivities, trypophobia serves as a reminder of the myriad ways in which people perceive and process the environment around them. 

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