When some people look at clusters of small holes, like those seen in a lotus seed pod or honeycomb, they are suddenly and inexplicably filled with an unpleasant, skin-crawling feeling.

Turns out, the internet could be feeding this unofficial phobia. A series of experiments has now shown that online discussions on 'trypophobia' – or the fear of small holes – could be partly driving the common phenomenon.

In a survey of 283 people aged 19 to 22, a team of psychologists at the University of Essex and the University of Suffolk found that a quarter of trypophobic individuals had never heard of the condition, suggesting there really is some aspect of the condition that is innate.

But that doesn't mean there isn't an element of peer influence at play, too.

The team also found that survey respondents are more likely to be trypophobic and more sensitive to little holes if they had heard of the condition before.

As many as 64 percent said they discovered the phenomenon on the internet or social media.


"Overall, these results suggest that although trypophobia's wide internet presence may have contributed to the social learning aspect of the phenomenon, this cannot be the sole explanation," write the researchers.

This isn't too surprising, the team adds. After all, social learning is a known component of other phobias, like those for snakes or spiders, "in which a person becomes exposed to society's representation and view of certain objects and/or becomes aware of the aversion experienced by a family member."

But the recent findings do suggest that the commonness of trypophobia may be influenced, at least in part, by its large presence on the internet.

(Ultra999/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trypophobia is not yet a medically recognized condition. It was first described in the scientific literature by two psychologists from the University of Essex in 2013, one of whom is also an author on the new paper. The name for the phenomenon, however, actually seems to have emerged eight years prior in online discussions.

Since that first official paper, hundreds of news articles have been written on the subject, and visual memes now litter the internet.

Today, however, scientists are still torn over whether or not trypophobia is a real condition, or if it is "a fear made worse by the internet", as some have speculated. They can't even agree on how many people it affects.

In 2013, scientists settled on 15 percent of people, but in 2023, a large study on young people in China found that trypophobia probably impacts 17.6 percent of people.

The psychologist Geoff Cole, who wrote that initial 2013 paper, has now led another series of experiments at the University of Essex, to understand the condition better. Unlike their previous study, Cole and his team found that trypophobia impacts about 10 percent of people.

While it's true that a negative experience with an event or object can induce a phobia, it's unlikely that those with trypophobia have ever actually been threatened by a cluster of little holes.

A lotus seed pod. (Henry So/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Instead, scientists have suggested the fear or sense of disgust is an evolutionary remnant. It makes us feel uncomfortable because the pattern resembles parasite infestations, infectious diseases, or decomposition – all of which can threaten human health.

"An alternative internet-driven account of trypophobia is that a person who was not previously aware of the condition may notice they are sensitive to holes and then seek out information via the internet," the researchers describe.

"The internet then confirms what a person previously suspected."

This does not mean that social media is inducing trypophobia all on its own, but it does suggest that online content is making people aware of feelings that may already exist. This, in turn, could possibly exacerbate them.

Several past psychology studies have found that even among 4- and 5-year-olds, trypophobic images cause discomfort, even before children have had time to familiarize themselves with the internet.

"Overall," researchers at Essex conclude, "these data suggest that both social learning and non-social learning contribute to trypophobia."

The study was published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental.