Column | Trypophobia: Disgust, distress, and dread

The presence of visual stimuli, such as air bubbles in a coffee drink (left) or in a biomorphic façade (right) that features clusters of holes, can trigger disgust, distress, and dread in individuals who experience trypophobia. Image courtesy: Michael Luke Jose, Ann Rochyne Thomas

Trypophobia (trypta, hole; phobos, fear; Greek) is marked by an intense and disproportionate aversion towards clusters of holes, protrusions, and recurring patterns, such as those reminiscent of lotus seed pods or aerated chocolate bars. Those affected experience a range of neurovegetative symptoms, including nausea, goosebumps, sweating, shortness of breath, and increased heart rate, upon exposure to triggering stimuli. The term "trypophobia," coined in 2005, is ascribed to an unidentified user on an online forum. As it primarily elicits feelings of disgust rather than fear, trypophobia is not a true ‘phobia’.

Not all images of clusters of holes evoke a pronounced reaction in trypophobic individuals. In images that induce trypophobia, a shared attribute is high-contrast energy at low and midrange spatial frequencies—intricate, compact, and repetitive arrangements accentuated by a pronounced contrast, with remarkably luminous bright regions and distinctly shaded dark regions. Because of the shadows cast by directional lighting, holes have high contrast. The greater the contrast, the more trypophobic the reaction. This is why all visuals depicting hole clusters do not trigger trypophobia.

Trypophobic tendencies are inherent and ubiquitous among individuals, regardless of their conscious recognition. They span a spectrum, with diverse individuals exhibiting varying degrees of responsiveness to trypophobic stimuli. People who do not exhibit it may still experience discomfort or distress when confronted with triggering visuals. Despite the many anecdotal narratives shared by affected individuals on online platforms and the growing scholarly engagement since the 2010s, the body of scientific research dedicated to this phenomenon remains very limited.

To ignore or to investigate?

Trypophobia might have emerged as a survival mechanism rooted in an inherent avoidance of motifs that resemble patterns found on poisonous animals, scars, or lesions, all of which feature high contrast energy at midrange spatial frequencies.

Our visual system has evolved to focus attention on new objects in our visual field. Conscious recognition of an object takes up to 350 milliseconds, which is too slow for a timely response to potential threats such as venomous organisms. A more swift and effective detection-and-avoidance strategy is to identify threats based on a simple feature that is common to most dangerous animals. The computation of contrasts in an image provides such a low-level mechanism to facilitate a rapid, nonconscious response.

According to a few studies, trypophobia activates the amygdala, a part of the brain that initiates fear responses such as the fight or flight response. This implies that trypophobia is linked to the brain's innate response to potentially harmful stimuli.

A higher occurrence of trypophobia has been observed among urban individuals compared to their rural counterparts, with a notably lower occurrence among the elderly. This could point to the emergence of trypophobia as a contemporary emotional reaction, influenced by urbanisation-induced shifts and reduced encounters with naturally occurring, intricate, and repetitive patterns. Furthermore, the extensive accessibility of trypophobia-related content on the internet may have exerted a formative influence on the recognition of this phenomenon in the last decade.

Trypophobia may have originated from an intermingling of evolutionary influences and operant conditioning, wherein behaviours are shaped by rewards and punishments. Cognitive biases may have heightened attention and sensitivity to such images, contributing to the overall aversion that would have progressed into fear in some individuals. This escalation has the potential to lead to a phobia over time due to negative reinforcement, where avoidance behaviours intensify the fear response.

Inclusivity in public spaces

Trypophobic visuals in public areas can influence the perceptions, emotions, and behaviours of the public. For daylight control, ventilation, and privacy, architectural facades often have intricate lattice patterns. Trypophobic patterns may appear on sunscreens, brise soleil, ventilation grilles, and cobblestone pavements, as well as perforated or rough-surfaced street furniture, lighting fixtures, and public art installations.

Trypophobic patterns in public places reduce their inclusivity and accessibility by causing aversion, anxiety, and feelings of vulnerability in those who are affected. These patterns can also draw attention away from intended wayfinding markers, making it difficult for people to navigate public spaces. They may also discourage people from accessing particular areas.

Although not an officially recognised phobia, trypophobia is a real phenomenon that many people experience, albeit to varying degrees. When designing public spaces, addressing this must be balanced with other design considerations and the community's broader needs. Investigating how to address trypophobia in urban design can result in a better balance of functionality, design aspirations, and people's emotional comfort in public spaces.

This article is the first of a series on ‘Patterns’.

(Ann Rochyne Thomas is a bio-climatic spatial planner and founder of the Centre for Climate Resilience, a sustainability and climate change advisory.)

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