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Prof. Arnold Wilkins, University of Essex - Evolution and the Fear of Holes

In today’s Academic Minute, Professor Arnold Wilkins of the University of Essex digs up the evolutionary origin of a strange phobia. 

Arnold Wilkins is a professor of psychology at the University of Essex where he is currently investigating the way in which visual and visuo-perceptual difficulties contribute to reading disorders. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Sussex for work on human memory. His work has been widely published in numerous peer-reviewed journals.

About Professor Wilkins

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Professor Arnold Wilkins - Evolution and the Fear of Holes

One day a colleague of mine told me of a phobia he has. He is afraid of holes. A single hole is not a problem, but a cluster of holes is. He gets the creeps from a cheese grater or a honeycomb or a crumpet or indeed from pictures of these objects. We decided to investigate this phenomenon – it’s called trypophobia. It turns out that trypophobia is quite common and occurs in about 5% of the population.

Clusters of holes or pictures of holes gross people out. When we analysed the pictures mathematically we found that their properties differed from that of most other images, particularly images from nature. The trypophobic pictures had characteristics that made them very easy to pick out and intrinsically uncomfortable to look at in exactly the same way as some modern art can be very uncomfortable. We had previously found that some modern art is uncomfortable to look at because of the particular mathematical properties of the images.  So then we turned to pictures of other phobic objects – pictures of snakes and pictures of spiders, which are associated with some of the most common phobias. These images also had characteristics that made them both easy to pick out and also intrinsically uncomfortable to look at.

We got the same result with pictures of skin disorders, which are images that make most of us feel queezy.  It was when we tried pictures of highly poisonous animals, and found the same thing again that we realised what might be going on. Humans have obviously evolved to avoid poisonous animals and skin diseases. So we think humans may have developed a visual mechanism that picks out objects that pose a threat very quickly, so quickly that we know something is a threat before we even know what it is. Perhaps it is this overactive early warning system that is responsible for the phobia.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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