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When you type Trypophobia Trigger Images in google, you see a variety of images with irregular lumps and bumps among some more gory images.

Many people report that these images induce phobia like symptoms of anxiety.

Why do we get anxious when exposed to these images? What advantage is there to be had from this response?

I find the reasons like this ABC news report on ants and spiders. But still didn't get it any info from it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've made some edits to clarify and narrow down the question so that it was at less risk of closure. Interesting question +1. $\endgroup$ – James Apr 7 '17 at 4:31
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    $\begingroup$ I have no reference or anything, only a guess: seeing those holes alone didn't trigger me anything, but when I see "human skin photoshopped with lotus seed", the very first thing that comes to my mind is: what if it happened to me!?, and then comes the anxiety (although I'm already used to such images). I think human has tendency to think something bad that may happen to themself that make them anxious. $\endgroup$ – Andrew T. Apr 7 '17 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrewT. I also have no references, but I definitely agree. Any time I see one of these images, I'm reminded of a bug I learned about that lays its eggs in human skin. If I saw someone with lotus-seed-skin, I think it'd be in my best interests to go nowhere near them; considering natural selection, it seems likely this fear was evolved to help our ancestors avoid diseased individuals. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Apr 7 '17 at 13:24
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    $\begingroup$ My student created a neural network for recognizing trypophobia triggers: github.com/grzegorz225/trypophobia-detector $\endgroup$ – Piotr Migdal Apr 9 '17 at 12:34
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    $\begingroup$ @James Usually ones people would mistake as well (e.g. from reddit.com/r/trypophobia, but to low res after rescaling to have visible features; or from a "neutral" dataset, but actually being trypophobic). Only other "bad" set of examples was bushes/trees (which can be fixed by putting more of them in the "neutral" dataset). I encourage students (there were 6 of them) to do some write-up, as the results (and other finding) was interesting (and going beyond my expectations). Side note: try neural style: deepart.io (face as image, lotos seeds as style). A texture phenomenon. $\endgroup$ – Piotr Migdal Apr 10 '17 at 22:07
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Trypophobia is not a recognised specific anxiety disorder (Washington Post). It is worth mentioning that anyone can have a phobia to anything, this is merely a question of whether many people associate these spatial patterns with anxiety. Nevertheless, the response of individuals to these images can be quantified (Le et al., 2015). Ultimately the findings show that a response of trypophobia is not correlative with anxiety. Note that here we are discussing anxiety in a phobia response test. Typically anxiety manifests as sweating, dizziness, headaches, racing heartbeats, nausea, fidgeting, uncontrollable crying or laughing and drumming on a desk. This is not merely feeling uncomfortable.

One hypothesis was that these images had irregular spatial patterns that cause revulsion. A study found that in nature some animals and plants may use this patterning as a warning mechanism and that it is associated with poisonous animals (spatial pattern quantification of 10 poisonous animals versus 10 control animals p=0.03), and indeed spiders were among those that use irregular patterns (Cole & Wilkins, 2013). Note that this hypothesis was presented in a psychology journal so the evolutionary mechanisms remain, in my opinion, not fully explored and scrutinised.

Hover over the below yellow box to view a lotus seed head, which has typical irregular spatial patterning presented in the 2013 study.

This image is often reported as inducing trypophobia.

enter image description here

Answer: In summary, humans do not reliably feel anxious when viewing these images. It also remains unclear why some people do get anxious or uncomfortable when viewing these images. It is perhaps to do with an aversion to some potentially harmful animals, but evidence remains scarce.

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    $\begingroup$ I am very much irritated by seeing the image you posted in the answer, I had to close the image with my hands to approve the answer just to click it. $\endgroup$ – Juan J. Stábile Apr 7 '17 at 4:37
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    $\begingroup$ @user48898: But it doesn't affect me at all. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 7 '17 at 4:46
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    $\begingroup$ As a third response class: I don't find the patterns irritating in a manner that makes me feel at all anxious, but I do find them distracting. They draw my gaze if they are in my peripheral vision and set off a "that's odd" feeling that I need to make at least a small amount of conscious effort to ignore. I assume I am subconsciously trying to find a pattern to satiate that part of us that feels safest once everything is understood. $\endgroup$ – David Spillett Apr 7 '17 at 10:49
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    $\begingroup$ LOL that's so weird - never noticed it before. I don't feel anxious or sick or anything, but as soon as I hovered over the image and saw it, I had a quick "Ewww" reaction as if I'd just put my hand on something gross. Only lasted a second, but it's still neat to realize the reaction is there. $\endgroup$ – Omegacron Apr 7 '17 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder if reactions to the specific example of a lotus head are influenced by well-known fake images of lotus heads misrepresented as botfly larva in human skin. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Krumwiede Apr 7 '17 at 17:52
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As someone who is very disgusted by this kind of image, I think it is a caused by an association with maladies like burns, infections, and especially parasites. It is difficult for me to even describe this without feeling a bit nauseated, but it is hard for me to see things like that without picturing it being my, or someone else's, skin. Or that it is crawling with parasites. I don't have any particular source for this because it's from my own experience.

It isn't entirely unreasonable that this would be a biological defense because if you saw an animal with an area of perforated skin (also hard to even write) it would be a good idea to not touch it since this could indicate bacterial ulcers or a skin infection. If you saw a patch of ground with tiny holes all over it, it might not be a good idea to sit there as this would probably indicate burrowing insects such as termites were present.

Another thing that confirms this for me is that when trolls edit these patterns onto a human it has the worst effect, and nearly makes me vomit. As this article notes, also from its author's own experience, these types of images are some of the worst for Trypophobia. There have been some studies finding that the response is similar to our reaction to danger, rather that just disgust. From my own reaction to these images this seems to be accurate.

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    $\begingroup$ Please add some references to your answer. $\endgroup$ – another 'Homo sapien' Apr 7 '17 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ I have created an account just to upvote this answer. I have exactly the same responses to this images as Paul S. I would theorise the same way Paul S does, images like that give me associations of flesh/substance crawling with larvae and insects, which I would consider dangerous. Places with holes like that give me association of the above mentioned creatures living there which would also be dangerous to approach. $\endgroup$ – user1264176 Apr 7 '17 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Bio. Thanks for this interesting answer. However, it seems more like a collection of personal thoughts. Could you generalize this answer, and lift it to the population level, and add sources? $\endgroup$ – AliceD Apr 8 '17 at 5:31
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    $\begingroup$ @James well, actually OP has provided search terms for image.google.com search which are even bold "Trypophobia Trigger Images" which kind of makes me wonder if you have read the question. $\endgroup$ – user1264176 Apr 12 '17 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ @James I have made an edit to this answer because I don't have enough points to make a separate answer. I tried to add references and prove Paul S hypothesis about nausea feeling while looking at these images. Unfortunately, it was rejected. From my search - there is no research in this area, so we can only hypothesise. $\endgroup$ – user1264176 Apr 13 '17 at 8:28
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The "That's Odd" feeling is real. And now I understand the term "trypophobia" as a specific example of a more general aversion response which seems common in nature, and might even be hard-wired in the neural-circuits of many animals. The brightly coloured and mottled/spotted patterns found on various insects, amphibians and reptiles may represent more than just simple camouflage. I recall a large black salamander I found which was covered by yellow spots - I recognized it as a local species, not rare, but when I noticed it, despite my interest and curiousity, I felt a clear sense of "weird - ugh - yuck". Now this salamander lives under rocks, under leaves, in rotted-wood, and so on. The existence of the bright yellow spots are not likely related to helping it hide. Why would it evolve such a bright pattern, given its typical habitat? It may be the spot-pattern itself is a weapon, as it seems to provide the creature with a way to trigger a "yuck - leave that ugly thing alone" response in humans, who could be potential threats to the small, slow-moving and otherwise quite defenseless salamader. Yellow Spotted Salamander The pattern of spots on the lotus-seed head seem to be similar to the spot pattern on the salamander. The aversion-response in humans has almost certainly evolved as a protective mechanism to keep us from being poisoned, stung, bitten or burnt when young children. But it is also possible this response is not "hard-wired" at all, but is learned. Once stung by a brightly-coloured wasp or hornet, the child quickly learns to avoid handling this type of creature. And the harmless salamander's bright yellow random-spaced spots simply mimic the colour-coding of more effectively hostile agents.

It is possible the aversion to random spotted bumpy/lumpy surfaces may be related to a similar learning phenomenon. We encounter stinking, rotted flesh, and already have the evolutionary systems in place to detect that rotted meat should not be eaten - it smells bad. Really bad. And so, other creatures have an opportunity to evolve displays which - if they mimic the appearance of the rotted flesh - can benefit by the associative trigger of the visual appearance of the rotten flesh, and the chemical response from the smell. If the smell creates a powerful aversion response, the linkage that mammals - not just humans - might make to the visual appearance of the bad-smelling thing, might provide an opportunity for creatures to evolve mechanisms that can take advantage of this situation.

This linkage of stimulus-response, and the ability of the stimulus-response mechanism to be transferred to a different, associated response is well understood - Pavlov's dogs, for example, which learned quickly that the ringing bell meant feeding, and so would salivate when they heard the bell ring, without having to smell the food.

It is also possible the trypophobic response some humans feel, is simply learned, the way many phobias appear to be. The work of B.F. Skinner (creator of the "Skinner Box"), showed that behaviour could be "conditioned", and virtually any stimulus could be made to be associated with any response, given sufficient time, opportunity and intensity of the conditioning effort.

I suspect if a behavioural economist offered to pay $100 for each yellow spotted salamander a person could catch, the typical human would very quickly encode a different internal response to the appearance of the salamander's bumpy, spotted appearance, and it would certainly not be an aversion response.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome!!! Gemesyscanada to Biology Stack exchange. Please can u provide references to support your statements or for further reading on the topic. You can visit help center for more details. $\endgroup$ – user237650 Apr 7 '17 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ Excellent answer Gemesyscanada. @Mesentery I am puzzled by this robot like obsession by some on stack exchange to feel compelled to point out technicalities in an otherwise excellent SE answer. Here's a first time poster that has posted what I discern as an excellent answer. And your criticism is more likely to scare him away for nothing. If you want to add refs feel free to edit his answer! $\endgroup$ – curious_cat Apr 7 '17 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ @curious_cat I just requested him to provide references, I didn't criticise him. I just wanted to give him an idea how the site works by guiding him to the help center. How can u feel that I scared him. Can u point out any threatening word in my comment, that if u don't provide references ur answer will be deleted. $\endgroup$ – user237650 Apr 7 '17 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Mesentery My point is that not every answer needs to have explicit references in it to be a good answer. So long as the point is not very esoteric or controversial it seems counterproductive to stick to a pedantic instance on references. Often a knowledgeable commentor may have enough time to give you a good answer but not enough to search and add for references. $\endgroup$ – curious_cat Apr 7 '17 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Biology. It's a nice answer and thank you for your contribution. However, I second the comments from James & Mesentery that references, or sources are considered as an essential component of any answer. $\endgroup$ – AliceD Apr 8 '17 at 5:45

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