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Why do holes horrify me? (mosaicscience.com)
72 points by bingden 1 day ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 91 comments

If you want a trypophobia dataset, my mentees created one: https://www.kaggle.com/cytadela8/trypophobia (for a deep learning project). Use it at your own risk. Great Old Ones warn you.

Here is one of the abstracts (with some references): https://www.dropbox.com/s/pb1h19kslroyro8/TrypophobiaTFML.pd...

And here I was, wonder why people in horror movies go and have a look for the monster. Immediately opening that gallery.

Jesus, some of those images turn my stomach and I can't explain why.

> mentees

Sounds like something you would use for bad breath.

Humans want to avoid disease and some diseases can causes holes or hole-like symptoms on victims, so it's human nature to be horrified of clusters of holes because it's abnormal.

Probably. This also explains that people find comfort in pimple popping and ASMR. The first is a direct skin health care routine and ASMR is simulating human intimacy, probably giving the impression of being cared for by others, which helps when being sick.

I guess it is not widespread because the evolutionary pressure only evolved it on part of human people for local reasons.

Or what I want to believe: Its phenotypical expression is different for different folks because of gene activation. Could be that traumatic occurences in the past (like being serious sick of s.th. like that, or being in the midst of an epidemy, while avoiding it oneself) activate the gene and this is passed on to the next few generations.

That's the thing, most "example images" aren't just a bunch of holes or circles (I've never heard anyone claim security mesh or a half-cooked pancake are horrifying, although apparently crumpets are a known trigger?). They're photos (either shopped or real) of something that looks like a gnarly parasite infection. Disliking that is not 'phobia', it's legitimately yuck.

It's not merely a 'dislike' though.

I've had arachnophobia (spiders). It feels like an intense, paranoid, startling horror which demands visual attention and quick jumping away of the body. If I know there's a spider nearby, I must be able to see it from a safe distance.

I have trypophobia (holes). It feels like my skin is crawling, like I'm being eaten alive from the inside, like my very essence of being is being violated by some cosmic plague, commanding me to look away and get as far away from the holed object as possible -- though without excessive urgency.

I can look at many things I dislike; many things I know for fact are dangerous. I can't look at certain kinds of clusters of holes.

Fair, and I should have added a rider that "if you're actively incapable of dealing with such things, then that's not dislike, that's a phobia."

Please don't feel obliged to answer this, but - is it only biological-looking pictures that trigger this? Or do you get it from clearly non-biological things (eg. security mesh, ventilation grills, cheesegraters) as well?

I looked at a couple of pictures from the dataset posted above, and I think for the best effect the holes need to be local (so there's a regular / smooth surface, and only some of it is covered in holes), they need to be large enough to actually see individually and there needs to be some space between them (so meshes etc. don't work at all), and ideally they are also slightly irregular.

You really don't encounter something that satisfies all of these naturally very often. Pretty much never. But it doesn't have to be "biological", it can be bread or plastic or anything else.

I'm not the earlier poster, but have similar reactions as that poster, and for me, yes, sometimes non-biological things trigger similar reaction. Not always, and usually not as strong, but it's often there. It can depend on context, my own physical state (fresh awake and mentally 'on' vs... tired/foggy/etc).

Interesting question. Was afraid of the shower drain cover's holes once, but generally no, have seen few human-made objects possessing the phobic quality. I think manufactured patterns are too regular and neat to trigger it.

Probably not. Lots of abnormal things aren't viscerally horrifying and I'd expect something with a strong evolutionary basis like avoidance of disease to be much more widespread than trypophobia. Such as, for example, the nearly universal dislike of the taste and smell of rotting meat.

Trypophobia is presumably an abnormal, overly-aggressive version of the disease-avoidance mechanism, though; there's no evolutionary reason to be unsettled by holes on inorganic objects, or even most kinds of holes on organic ones. Presumably, almost everyone has some level of the underlying mechanism; go look at a picture of a smallpox victim and see how you feel about it.

Perhaps it's a local thing. If you're around guinea worms, you evolve to be afraid of their signs, maybe? Not everyone is afraid of spiders or snakes, but there's a good evolutionary reason to be, so maybe people who aren't afraid of them are from areas without extremely venomous versions?

> Not everyone is afraid of spiders or snakes, but there's a good evolutionary reason to be, so maybe people who aren't afraid of them are from areas without extremely venomous versions?

This reaction is almost certainly a taught cultural behaviour.

In some areas of the world, snakes/spiders are considered food sources. Many of these areas, such as the amazon, also contain the highest concentrations of venomous species.

I’m not sure I believe that. I was terrified of spiders since I was a little kid. I couldn’t touch the pages of the nature picture books my parents bought me before I could read. Neither of my parents were afraid of spiders, but they freaked my young self out. It’s gotten better now and I can coexist with them, but I would still freak out if a spider were on me. Thinking about it is increasing my pulse as I write this.

> This reaction is almost certainly a taught cultural behaviour.

On the other hand, chimpanzees raised in captivity have been known to scream in fear when seeing snake-like objects such as pieces of hose.

Also, cats and cucumbers? Probably most domestic cats haven't been exposed to snakes or threatened by cucumbers.

I have a hard time believing that. Lots of parents are afraid of dogs, but that doesn't give their children the visceral irrational revulsion towards dogs that arachnophobes have towards spiders. I've never heard of someone who can't even look at pictures of dogs or birds or bears, whilst it's very common for images of spiders to make people very uncomfortable.

As far as I can tell, not being afraid of them has to be learned. I cannot find a source, but I recall reading that even people who keep spiders as pets, still have a raised heartrate when holding them.

>taught cultural behaviour

There was a video that presented images very quickly and asked you to count spiders and snakes percentages among innocent pics. Most respondents (me included) evaluated to at least 50%, while real ratio was something like 1/5 or less. Also, when you watch it, it feels like snake-spider-snake-grass-spider-snake. You may not run in panic, but you do see it.

Cannot find the video, and it was probably a gif, afair.

Snakes don't phase me _at all_, no pulse change whatever. I don't care, never have. I'll happily enter a bath filled with them and stay there for hours. My baby boy doesn't care about spiders, snakes, etc. He is now learning it because my wife is (over)reacting to them.

There is a major environmental/learned aspect to this, I don't buy the 100% inborn argument at all. Young children (0-12mo) don't give a damn about anything. I do believe we are born with the innate potential to focus on these creatures faster/earlier than other animals, but fear, that's learned.

Do pople who eat spiders not consider them to look scary?

Well, disease is not abnormal nor death is. Only our culture makes it abnormal.

When I was a kid I tried to make porous plaster brick with baking soda and gypsum. I think I used chalk instead of gypsum because it didn't set. However it was porous and when I saw holes inside I felt as if it was dangerous (maybe even evil).

I had to wait till the internet happened to find out what was that all about.

I have to repeat this experiment some day. I probably got less sensitive since then.

That's fascinating that the feeling was so memorable, even after so many years, and how you describe it as not only dangerous but "evil" - that seems to be tapping into some primal instinct, like "horror" in a Lovecraftian sense.

> I have to repeat this experiment some day.

Gotta love the pursuit of knowledge, the curiosity to understand one's own psychology. It reminds me of the various experiments conducted in the surrealist movement, inspired by Freud's exploration of the unconscious, the "art of the insane", anthropogical literature.

In another comment of yours, you mention that the holes being physical, rather than a 2D image, was probably an important aspect of its effectiveness in raising a strong reaction. That makes me wonder about what other natural phenomena produce such trypophobic textures, in terms of physics, chemistry, biology.

Strangely, I think I have a kind of "trypophilia", a sense of aesthetic pleasure from dense, complexly patterned structures.

Interesting - does the Apple Watch Nike sport band (with holes) inspire the same revulsion from you?

Not really. I've seen that kind of imagery on the internet and even the worst ones give me bearly noticeable uneasiness.

I want to try to recreate that first thing that triggered me. Maybe physical object will work stronger than images or some specific proportions between hole size, distance, shading, randomness.

It wasn't even revulsion. Just a feeling it's dangerous or somehow evil. Despite full knowledge it's not because I just made it with perfectly safe ingredients that don't react to create something worse.

Not the same guy but for me, the regularity of the holes in the watch strap renders it safe. Something that appears more organic tends to trigger revulsion more strongly. The implication of lots of holes in skin is very difficult to look at, actual holes in an animals skin is the worst (there's a frog that pops babies directly out of holes on its back).

Not even clicking on this article because I know it's about trypophobia and I'm afraid of seeing the pictures!

I had the exact same reaction but clicked it anyways. I really appreciated them not doing that. All the past articles I've read always included an image -- I can't help but feel the author/editors thought it would be funny or are being dismissive of this fear/aversion. For me it is also triggered by the sight of sick fishes when their scales are puffed up. Images of large numbers of holes triggers a strong fight or flight reaction in me.

There actually are no triggering images. I guess they want trypophobics to be able to read it.

Not even joking here, I got triggered by the "mosaic newsletter" animation half way through the article and I had to close the article. That's how strong my trypophobia is. Heck, even the word "trypophobia" is a trigger for me.

Pretty few would take the risk, I bet. It's an interesting problem- we have "trigger warnings" and "content warnings" but not "content all-clears."

I'm actually surprised accessibility movements haven't standardized an HTML tag or a meta attribute that specifies that the site has certain phobia-inducing images. It would allow people with certain phobias to avoid seeing such images (e.g. images could be auto-blanked, text blurred).

Yikes, the real horror is always in the comments.

I have seen SFW used in that regard.

Ummm, just don't click any of the links in the article though.

I wonder can't you see the picture is just a picture? In a way as when you watch a movie where people die or something you realize it's just a movie, right?

I think it's not really about the rational/analyzing part of the brain being involved here.

A lot of phobias have "involuntary" reactions, so, for me, it doesn't matter that I know the picture can't hurt me- I still get the negative reaction to it every time and no amount of rational thinking or understanding has any effect.

It's something more primal than that.

social contaigon is a weird, weird thing.

I have always understood /r/trypophobia to be a deep in-joke, and the earliest i can find reference to the idea at all is 2005: https://web.archive.org/web/20090316071914/http://www.geocit...

and that smells tongue-in-cheek too.

I don't think it's just that, though. I'd never heard of it, or the concept of it, when I first saw one of those "doctors hate this weird trick for getting rid of parasites" or whatever ads. It had a photoshop of some kind of a seed pod onto human skin, so it looked like a bunch of worm heads inside holes or something. I almost threw up the instant I looked at it. I later found out that lots of people have that reaction, and it had a name. I think sometimes just naming something gives it life, because then it's an actual thing that people can identify with or not. I'm sure there are lots of phobias or... I dunno, triggers?... that would affect me but I've never experienced or heard of them before so I have no awareness of them. A name might give me that awareness.

But yes, it's a weird, weird thing. No one ever talked about being afraid of clowns when I was a kid. Lots of people liked them, lots were indifferent, but I don't recall ever hearing anyone say they were frightened of them until much later in life. And I clearly remember the first time I heard of anyone disliking the word "moist", and thinking I was being trolled.

I agree that trypophobia is more than just a social contagion.

I personally had physical reactions of disgust and an unusual desire to destroy Lotus seed pods the first time I saw them. I wanted to put them on the cement and smash and grind them with my shoe until they were a fine paste. This was before I had ever heard the word "trypophobia".

The only thing in nature I've found to trigger me is Lotus seed pods. Unlike your example of the doctored images, there is nothing objectively gross about seed pods, they are a natural part of a healthy and harmless plant.

Call it morbid curiosity, but I will sometimes browse /r/trypophobia and I get the same feelings there, but never worse than simply viewing a seed pod.

I wouldn't always call it a phobia, they look unnerving to me too.

The way I've always interpreted it is that it looks like and reminds us of an infected pimple/abscess/parasite/something growing under the skin where it shouldn't be, coupled with enough empathy or imagination to picture it happening to us. The natural reaction is then disgust and aversion. It's just a result of the way our brains are built, similar to seeing faces where they don't exist.

I'm pretty sure I've seen a lotus seed pod in real life and didn't have a reaction, since it's much easier to construct a mental image of what it really is instead of what it might be.

Interesting. I would call it a phobia, because after looking up images of lotus seed pods, I had no reaction to it at all. I can see how someone would associate it with an insect nest or something, but it doesn't bother me at all.

FWIW, lotus seeds can be eaten straight out of the pod; I spent many a summer peeling apart the pods and eating the seeds as a kid. Maybe that’s why I don’t have trypophobia? I see those pictures and just think about the tasty seeds inside...

> Lotus seed pods

Should've read the rest of your comment before googling that. I didn't expect as strong a reaction as I just had upon seeing those. Deeply unsettling.

The small, oval shaped lakes that you can find littering satellite imagery of northern Siberia, northern Alaska, etc... Those are where I first discovered that these sorts of pictures induce anxiety in me and that there's even a name for it. Unsettling is a good word to describe the feeling it elicits.

I’m curious to Google it and at the same time afraid...

Don't be afraid. It is a plant. A green-leaf garden variety plant. The seed pod is harmless, even if its shape is unsettling.

I definitely had a mild reaction to that sort of image, long, long before it was discussed anywhere. My first instance, as a teenager, was where I had found a lump of play-doh, and (for whatever reason) jabbed it repeatedly with a pencil. I was then disgusted by what I had created.

My second early incident was seeing the cover of the O'Reilly book "Windows Annoyances", which features an image of a Surinam toad with young embedded on its back. Yes, I wasn't a fan of Windows at the time, but I couldn't imagine what the editors were thinking when they chose that cover image.

Wow, I hadn’t heard of the Surinam toad. That’s so weird and a little creepy.

I was about to comment about the "moist" thing but you beat me to it. It's a very recent phenomenon and makes absolutely no sense. But I remember having the same sickened reaction to that lotus seed pod photo.

If it's the picture I'm thinking of, it's actually a photo of a girls knees after she was made to kneel on frozen peas as a punishment. If you Google "Kneeling On Frozen Peas" you can find articles about it.

Is that the picture with a few peas still attached? I think that's the bit that really brings it home, without that it wouldn't effect me at all.

No, that’s not the one. This was definitely shopped to depict occupied holes in a person.

I remember my first experience with the fear of holes in things being a lotus seed pod shopped onto a boob, with the claim it was an infection or parasite of some sort

That’s it! That’s the one. And I am absolutely not googling it to verify.

I experienced this long before I ever saw it on the internet. For me it's especially bad if there is a hole and something small is stuck in it. Even as I type this I remember a specific object I used to see often and I feel my face flush. It's a strangely uncomfortable experience that I can physically feel in my "bones" as they say. I wouldn't say it's a phobia in the sense that I am afraid of it, and I don't often experience it, but it's quite disturbing. An eerie, undefinable discomfort.

I don't think I have it to the degree that it's a "phobia", but I find a lot of trypophobia images really creepy/gross/frightening. Basically the same reaction I have to arthopods.

I also have had a history, prior to being exposed to the concept of trypophobia, of body-horror nightmares where lots of tiny holes open up in my skin around my joints, so yeah, it's probably one of those common fears.

Oh, that nightmare when you stress your muscles and they rip into holes. I also had it, and it was weird, not terrifying.

well... thank you very much. 3 am - can't sleep... now I'm terrified of even trying as I've never had that nightmare but it's now stuck in my head... :/

It's definitely a real thing. I don't have it badly, but when I learned about tryptophobia it was satisfying to know why lotus seed pods had always made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.

(Google that only if you're reasonably confident you're not a tryptophobe. :) )

It's not a joke for me! Google image searching "trypophobia" is terrifying!

I used DuckDuckGo, but a lot of that seems intentionally disturbing rather than coincidentally so. Graphic depictions of skin conditions can be difficult to not empathize with. There is certainly room for someone else's reaction to be an extreme magnification of mine, but "terrifying" seems so subjective already I have a hard time ruling out a big joke on that basis alone.

I get grossed out if I look at strawberries too closely because I think of the seeds as little clogged pores and it freaks me out. https://image.freepik.com/free-photo/strawberry-close-up_61-...

I wouldn't call it a phobia but I get a very real reaction from it.

Yeah, it sounds a little like having a gore-phobia. It's supposed to freak people out.

When I was a little kid I was terrified of coral because of the little holes. I definitely wouldn't say I have a phobia but images of things with lots of holes makes my skin crawl.

well thank you for ruining coral diving for me, one of most wonderful experiences in life...

more seriously though, it seems strange that a lot of things I wouldn't notice at all unless there was some really bad trigger, like photoshopped trypto images and then I start noticing this pattern more (especially if there is something sticking out of those holes...)

bee/wasp honey combs with their younglings, anybody?

I remember seeing a PostSecret about it (but not referencing trypophobia by name) when I was in college ~2008.

You're utterly off. It evokes a strong reaction of disgust and horror in many people.

Just want to mention Steve Jobs likely had a similar phobia/disgust around buttons, known as Koumpounophobia.


My skin is crawling/itching just from reading the discussion about trypophobia, and I haven't even looked at the pictures (and can't, because I definitely have the phobia).

I think there are other visual phobias that maybe are even lesser known. I have some kind of phobia-like thing with industrial/mechanical things that are dirty-looking or poorly-lit. It's hard to explain. Also things like dam spillways/etc.

Like, opening up an indoor furnace to repair or check for issues. The dust, the rust, the coils, etc all give me a weird feeling. It's not as heavy or pronounced as my trypophobia. I can overcome it much easier (with strong/bright lighting, etc) but I still notice its presence.


Also, I'm not sure if "phobia" is the best term or not either. For me, in some cases there can be some kind of fear or disgust involved. But mostly for me it's not any kind of mental analysis ("ew, gross", etc) it's just a reaction. Looking at the pictures just immediately induces an unsettling feeling, crawling/itching head and skin, etc.

I have no problem with the lotus pod-type holes, but things like dam spillways and other large pipe-like structures are creepy: https://old.reddit.com/r/thalassophobia/comments/2tosha/how_...

I find Trypophobia phenomenon interesting. For most phobias, I can understand how one can develop a repulsion to them. But things that bother you guys, I have 0% reaction to.

Apparently the new iPhone is known to trigger trypophobia. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/09/12/iphone-tryp...

Whoa! I have trypophobia and just never knew what it was - I thought it was just a quirk of my brain.

Sometimes it creeps into my dreams - can be very disturbing.

Whenever this comes up it makes me think of William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

There’s a flashback description of the main character’s revulsion with a smashed wasp’s nest.

That was written in 1984ish so this has been around for longer than the web anyway.


I can't help but think that cognitive therapy would enable anyone to overcome the syndrome. But maybe the thought of a future self having overcome it is itself a trigger?

I'm fine with crumpets but the thought of lotus pods is too much.

Probably because you can’t eat them doused in butter and honey.

I don't see why not?

Lotus pods are pretty fibrous.

An elephant could manage it, with or without butter, if you could find an elephant not afflicted with trypophobia.

Even without the images, just the descriptions alone were enough to trigger feelings of revulsion.

I worked with a designer who had Trypophobia and refused to mock out a GitHub-style contribution graph / punchcard. Friendly reminder to not create products that inadvertently terrify people.

Did you come up with a different design that doesnt trigger it? I would be interested to hear.

Huh. I'd miss some of my favorite foods.

Pancakes. Crispy fried eggs. Fudge. Raw honeycomb.

Edit: And crumpets.


Good night

I thought it was a universal condition...

/r/Submechanophobia (submerged man-made objects) and /r/Thalassophobia (deep water) are other populated subreddits where people use these these lower emotions to get high.

If you're not phobic you like the adrenaline I guess.

Other than Acrophobia and gore not sure of others that are common enough to get popular subreddits? ASMR is a more enjoyment high.

A lot don't transfer well to a computer screen I think. /r/claustrophobia is quite small compared to Submechanophobia.

[edit] And the reason Trypophobia is thought to not be a phobia -

"While phobias are triggered by the emotion of fear, the study published in the open-access journal PeerJ concludes that trypophobia is more likely driven by disgust instead." https://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/trypophobia...

I knew about trypophobia and it doesn't really disgust me, but the linked "Dr. Pimple Popper", has some rather disturbingly "tasty" stuff. I hope I don't dream about.

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