Hole-y Terror and Evolution

by An Xiao on September 12, 2013

Some of the many images of holes or clusters of holes which are the source of anxiety by sufferers of trypophobia. (images via

Some of the many images of holes or clusters of holes which are the source of anxiety by sufferers of trypophobia. (images via

OAKLAND, Calif. — Many common phobias make intuitive sense. Fear of snakes, fear of spiders, fear of heights — it’s easy to understand that these crippling phobias emerge from natural cautions we’ve inherited from millions of years of evolution.

But trypophobia, or the fear of holes, is a bit harder to understand. Once denounced as an internet meme, the phobia has returned with a recent NPR article about a study on the phenomenon and found that there’s actually a pretty strong reason we’re afraid of holes: many venomous creatures, like the blue ringed octopus, have a lot of holes on them. Phobic reactions are particular “in terms of contrast and levels of fine details,” meaning it’s not just any holes but the potentially deadly ones that people fear.

475px-The_ScreamNew research published in Psychological Science, and cited by Refinery 29, points out that: “Up to 16 percent of people experience this fear, with slightly more females (18 percent to males’ 11 percent) admitting a fear of ‘clustered’ holes.”

This fear may explain why certain famous art works have a special resonance with some people and evoke a sense of dread or fear. We recently featured Edward Munch, whose famous painting “The Scream” evokes multiple holes, not unlike the many-holed, spine-tingling objects on There’s Picasso’s “Guernica,” which has a lot of eyeballs that could resemble the holes of a poisonous creature.


Picasso’s Guernica. Click to view larger … if you dare.

On the other hand, Seurat’s famous pointillist works, which are composed of lots and lots of circles, are soothing rather than frightful. But maybe the wide variety of dots and holes look less like a dangerous creature and more like a relaxing, sandy beach.  And Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” does evoke a certain melancholy, but the holes are more like caves than venom-holding suction cups.

While the science seems sound, using the study results to interpret art is difficult — are we just projecting our previous understanding of the work onto the results? — but it’s an interesting exercise.

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  • samktg

    Pictures of holes are not generally unnerving to me. That image which splices the lotus seed heads into human flesh, however, gives me an immediate visceral, queasy response. It gives the impression of an insect infestation. It’s nightmare fuel.

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