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Fear of Holes Linked to Evolutionary Survival Response

Update Date: Sep 03, 2013 01:22 PM EDT

Beehives, lotus flowers, poppy seeds and bubbles are all things that can cause intense fear in people with trypophobia, or the fear of holes. Just looking at clusters of holes in various formations can cause very powerful and unpleasant visceral reactions in trypophobes.

While trypophobia, which is sometimes called repetitive pattern phobia, is not recognized in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, many people claim to be scared of objects with small holes. A previous study revealed that 16 percent of participants reported trypophobic reactions. Based on those findings, researchers say trypophobia may be "the most common phobia you have never heard of."

A new study reveals that the fear of holes may have stemmed from an evolutionary survival response. Lead researchers Geoff Cole and Arnold Wilkins of the University of Essex explain that the fear of holes may occur as a result of a specific visual feature also found among various poisonous animals.

To see whether there is a specific visual feature common to trypophobic objects, researchers compared 76 images of trypophobic objects. The study also included 76 control images of holes not associated with trypophobia.

After standardizing various features of the images, researchers found that the trypophobic objects had relatively high contrast energy at midrange spatial frequencies in comparison to the control images.

Researchers then analyzed the images of various poisonous animals - including the blue-ringed octopus, deathstalker scorpion, king cobra snake, and other poisonous snakes and spiders - and found that they, too, tended to have relatively high contrast at midrange spatial frequencies.

Cole and Wilkins said that the findings suggest that trypophobia may have an evolutionary basis. They explain that clusters of holes may be aversive because they happen to share a visual feature with animals that humans have learned to avoid as a matter of survival.

"We think that everyone has trypophobic tendencies even though they may not be aware of it," Cole said in a news release. "We found that people who don't have the phobia still rate trypophobic images as less comfortable to look at than other images."

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science. 

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