I'm hiding the images in this post behind the "More" link because they can cause serious problems for some people. Really.

Trypophobia isn't an officially recognized problem; even the name was coined by a layman. That's the primary reason I'm writing this article: I'm tired of reading online that it's a made-up condition, mass hysteria spread via the Internet.

Because I have had a variant of this condition for as long as I can remember.

My first conscious memory of my odd reaction to some images goes back to seeing a certain pattern of mushrooms on a woodland hike, sometime in early childhood. It was only very recently that some random Internet reading revealed that my experience was not unique.

Trypophobia, according to Wikipedia, "is an aversion to the sight of irregular patterns or clusters of small holes or bumps." Weird, I know. Apparently it's not uncommon, possibly affecting some sixteen percent of the population. But not much is known about the condition, and scientists, even those who are convinced it is real, are still arguing about whether the reaction is one of fear or of disgust, whether it evokes a response from the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system, and whether the root cause is evolutionary or something else.

My favorite, more precise, definition of trypophobia is "an intense and disproportionate fear towards holes, repetitive patterns, protrusions, etc., and, in general, images that present high-contrast energy at low and midrange spatial frequencies." That high-contrast energy at midrange frequencies will get you every time. It certainly makes more sense to me than the theories that trypophobia evolved from a fear of snakes or a disgust toward skin diseases.

In fact, I think they are barking up the wrong trees with their emphasis on fear and disgust reactions. In me, at least, the reaction includes elements of both, but also more. I can feel both my sympathetic and my parasympathetic systems kicking in. If I had to give it a one-word label, I think that would be "awe," or maybe "fascination." I seem to feel heightened awareness in every cell of my body. I had the same reaction when I looked up at the Brazilian night sky and saw familiar Orion—but upside down! And again, when snorkeling in crystal-clear water and floating over a steep drop-off in the land, looking down, down, down into unfathomable depths. Perhaps you know what it's like to feel "weak in the knees" when seeing someone perched precariously in a high place, or when reading about some particularly harrowing situation. That's what I feel—only it's not limited to my knees. There are elements of fear there, but much, much more.

For a long time I simply looked away from what are now called trypophobic images, but at some point I decided not to let them "win." I started staring them down, recognizing my physical reactions and learning—not to control, but to handle them, as a surfer rides a wave. I didn't encounter them all that often, anyway. I was still curious as to what in my nature or nurture could have caused such a situation, but hardly ever gave it a thought.

Enter the Internet. Having discovered a name for my condition, I naturally took to research. It was fascinating. There's a lot out there and I don't particularly recommend reading it. I found natural images I'd never seen before, like the lotus seed pod, that clearly and immediately set off the reaction. I found images that supposedly induced the reaction in others that had no effect on me. I found a whole slew of artificial images where trypophobia-inducing patterns were photoshopped onto human skin—and for the first time understood the "disgust" reaction. I tried to find references to something like my own neither-fear-nor-disgust reaction, but didn't go too far there. Just take my word for it that you do not want to google "trypophilia."

Finally, I stopped. This post is my official summing up and closing of the door on that research. Oh, the subject is still fascinating. Especially the pictures. But all that staring at trypophobic images is not healthy, I have concluded. The frequent over-stimulation of both my sympathetic and my parasympathetic nervous systems cannot be good. An occasional thrill ride is fun, but there's such a thing as roller-coaster overdose. Plus, even though I know that some use "exposure therapy" to lessen their responses to trypophobic triggers, I've discovered that all my recent exposure has made me notice them more than ever.

I know what it is to live with hypersensitivities. Noise levels that other people don't mind are painful to me. (I maintain they've mostly gone deaf from listening to too much loud music, but maybe it's just me.) I can detect levels of certain odors that no one else can (though I'm also "blind" to some that others can sense). I'm more sensitive than most to clothing discomfort. I suppose trypophobia is just another hypersensitivity—to that infamous "high-contrast energy at low and midrange spatial frequencies"!

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, below are some images that I react to. I'm curious, of course, if anyone else has the experience, but don't actually recommend that you look at them....

The top two are lotus seed heads, the next morel mushrooms, and the last a natural (unconstrained) honeycomb. Only natural images—those photoshopped ones are just plain sick.



Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 6, 2021 at 12:31 pm | Edit
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The morels reminded me of image of ductile steel fractures. Is the three-dimensionality necessary for the effect, or can leopard spots and wallpaper also generate it?

Posted by Stephan on Wednesday, January 06, 2021 at 4:07 pm

For some people all it takes is spots. For me, the more three-dimensional it appears, the stronger the effect.

Posted by SursumCorda on Wednesday, January 06, 2021 at 4:16 pm

I do not have the reaction that you do to these pictures. (Though I can imagine what it might be like when I think of leaning over a balcony to a large dropoff.) My thought at the honeycomb is that I can see a heart shape.

However, the second lotus seed head reminds me of some alien movies, especially if I imagine the holes with eyes in them. Or alien skin. Is 16% of the population enough to make that a valid reason to include such things in movies that are supposed to elicit a scared reaction?

It also slightly reminds me of a pachycephalosaurus. Do you have the reaction to drawings of those dinosaurs?

I'm wondering if the snake connection is another type of chicken/egg situation. Do some skin patterns elicit this reaction in people? Do they for you?

By the way, "you do not want to google 'trypophilia.'" is like putting a big label "Do not push the red button!" I will restrain myself on that one, because I do trust you.

But I will be asking my kids to look at the pictures to see if they have any reactions. Even if they do, it will likely be helpful to them to know that it is a "thing."

Posted by joyful on Thursday, January 07, 2021 at 8:25 am

The honeycomb is especially interesting. It was posted by Winter Park Honey on Facebook. Here's what they said about it: "This photo was taken by the owner of the hive. The beekeeper forgot to put the frames in which the bees collect honey, and the bees built their own architecture from the honeycomb, which takes into account natural ventilation, so that the air can flow freely and maintain a stable temperature. This is the heart!"

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, January 07, 2021 at 9:10 am

I know there has been at least one movie made with scenes that—apparently deliberately—incite trypophobia.

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, January 07, 2021 at 9:15 am

You mean the bumps on the head of the pachycephalosaurus? Somewhat, though I probably wouldn't have noticed except for my now-heightened awareness.

About the big red button. It won't kill you to do the search, and it's not even particularly "triggering" for tryptophobes. But apparently it was the suffix "-philia" that brought up sexual perversions I really didn't want to know about.

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, January 07, 2021 at 9:43 am

And I've never had problems with snakes, though as with most patterns that do not bother me, I can now see how they could in someone with a more severe case.

You might check out the Surinam toad, though. That's pretty freaky. Fascinating, but freaky.

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, January 07, 2021 at 9:54 am

I've heard that zebras' stripes give them some protection from predators, since the predators have difficulty focusing on them. I wonder if it's related somehow.

Posted by Kathy Lewis on Friday, January 08, 2021 at 12:56 pm

Interesting. I've never had a problem with zebras that I can remember, but next time I see one I'll pay more attention. I don't think I'm a particularly dangerous predator, but you never know.

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, January 08, 2021 at 3:00 pm

The zebras at Fathala survived our visit. And we were close enough that you would probably have noticed if the stripes bothered you. (or maybe too close, actually)

Posted by Kathy Lewis on Saturday, January 09, 2021 at 4:47 pm

So far, none of my children react negatively to the images. (Joy and Nathaniel have not yet seen them.)

Jonathan wants to know if the skin patterns of pineapples and strawberries are troublesome. (If all these questions make it worse for you, let me know.)

Posted by joyful on Monday, January 11, 2021 at 8:48 am

They don't affect me. Strawberries do pop up frequently in the list of "triggers," however. And I don't mind the questions at all. I find the phenomenon, like the images, fascinating. Similarly, I'd love to check out the CN tower in Toronto, and the glass bridge in the Grand Canyon. Or once again see Orion in the Southern Hemisphere. I've just learned that there's such a thing as overdoing the flood of chemicals to my body.

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, January 11, 2021 at 10:30 am
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