This Photo Deeply Disgusts Some People, And Scientists Are Trying To Understand Why

This image of a lotus seed pod may trigger disgust in people who report experiencing trypophobia. 3Point141/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

  • Clustered holes, bumps, and similar patterns disgust some people.
  • Some 15%-17% of people may experience this disgust, called trypophobia.
  • Trypophobia is not considered a true phobia, though it's poorly understood.
  • Many researchers agree trypophobia has instinctive roots in the human brain, but disagree about its possible ties to fears from our evolutionary past.

Does a photo of a lotus fruit, below, make your skin crawl?

If you can't see it yet and think it might trigger you, now would be a good time to stop scrolling.

Previous research suggests as many as 18% of women and 11% of men — or 15% of the general population — become viscerally upset after looking at images of clustered holes or bumps, according to research on the condition colloquially known as trypophobia.

These clusters of holes are common in nature. They range from the creepy, like the back of a female surinam toad, to more mundane sights like honeycomb or clusters of soap bubbles.

2013 paper in the journal Psychological Science quotes how one sufferer feels when facing a triggering image: "[I] can't really face small, irregularly or asymmetrically placed holes, they make me like, throw up in my mouth, cry a little bit, and shake all over, deeply."

lotus seed pod wikipedia 3Point141 ccbysa4

This image of a lotus seed pod may trigger disgust in people who report experiencing trypophobia. 3Point141/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Though trypophobia is called a "fear of holes," the more researchers look into it the more they find it's not so much a fear, and not only of holes.

The phobia also isn't recognized by the psychological community as such. This is because it doesn't really have the signs of a true phobia, at least in the diagnosable sense.

"Trypophobia is more akin to disgust than to fear, and that the disgust is probably an overgeneralisation of a reaction to possible contaminants,"Arnold Wilkins, a psychologist at the University of Essex, previously told Tech Insider in an email. "The disgust arises from clusters of objects, and these objects are not necessarily holes, despite the name trypophobia."

It's a complex problem, and scientists like Wilkins continue to study, quantify, and try to explain trypophobia and its origins in the human mind.

Disgust rooted in survival?

Honey combYum honey. Yuck holes.

Wilkins and his co-researcher Geoff Cole similarly think this strange revulsion could be rooted in biology, that we've evolved to fear these formations because when found in nature they are somehow dangerous.

To identify this effect, the researchers analyzed images found on trypophobia websites and images of holes that don't trigger trypophobia, looking for differences.

Then, when one of the self-reported trypophobics they interviewed mentioned a fear of the pattern on a blue-ringed octopus, they had what Cole has called a "bit of a Eureka moment," during which he realized a potential evolutionary reason for this fear of weirdly clustered holes — an association with a potentially poisonous or dangerous animal.

Here's the the blue-ringed octopus, which has venom powerful enough to kill a human:

Greater blue-ringed octopus

The poisonous blue-ringed octopus.

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