British Scientists Say We All Have A Made Up Fear of Patterns
September 6, 2013

British Scientists Say We All Have A Made Up Fear of Patterns

I’ve been conducting some ongoing and independent research for several years now. Anytime I’m at a party or hanging out with people I’ve only just met, I usually ask them about their response to those commercials for Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) medication. You see, I have a theory; while I’ll never claim RLS is a BS disease, (it’s a recognized neurological disorder, after all) I do have a sneaking suspicion that big pharma only wants to peddle some pills. In other words, if you see a commercial for something like RLS and start thinking “You know, I think I might have that,” then the drug companies are one step closer to grabbing your dollars.

There’s one important difference between RLS and Trypophobia, however; only one of them is recognized as a disorder. For all the people who say they feel uncomfortable when they see certain images of clusters of circles in asymmetrical patterns, the fear of these arrangements of shapes has not yet been officially classified.

These clusters of holes can be found nearly anywhere in nature. A good piece of sourdough bread, for instance, is packed with these holes created by air bubbles. Even the circles which appear on top of a pancake cooking on a hot griddle could cause those who have self-diagnosed themselves as Trypophobiacs to feel uneasy, queasy and even itchy.

There are two visual psychologists in the UK who have been leading the charge in the study of this uneasy condition, Geoff Cole and Arnold Wilkins. Earlier this week they made the claim that all humans probably have some degree of Trypophobia because it’s been evolutionarily wired into our brains. They drew this sweeping conclusion because one trypophobiac said they had an unnerving episode after they saw a picture of a poisonous octopus with the spherical patterns on it. Cole and Wilkins got an idea: What if this condition originated because humans one day millions of years ago learned that these patterns meant “bad animal, poisonous animal, dangerous animal!” to protect us from death and harm?

They put together some pictures of other poisonous animals with the patterns, analyzed them to see if they had the same effect as other pictures of asymmetrical circles, found they did, and came to their conclusion.

In my research for this piece, I found a Facebook group filled with so-called sufferers, many of which say they felt crazy for feeling so itchy and uneasy when they saw these patterns occur in nature or online. Yet, I can’t help but think much of the hay made about these patterns can be simply be chalked up to the power of persuasion.

It’s anecdotal evidence, sure, but I’d say a good nine out of every ten people I ask about the RLS commercials say they’d never noticed the symptoms until they saw a commercial educating them about the disease and, subsequently, offering to sell them pills to rid them of the discomfort. As a drummer who was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, I’ve annoyed my fair share of significant others and strangers alike with my fidgeting and tapping. Yet, I never have any problems with my legs until one of those commercials plays.

Later in my research, I found a video meant to help people understand if they have the fear of holes and to what degree. The idea is to sit with your feet planted flat on the ground and hands at the keyboard as you watch a series of images flash across your screen. If at any point you get an itch, you’re supposed to pause the video and note at what point you had to scratch your arm, leg, head, what have you. It’s not a scientific test, but it’s on par with all my other research. The video shows increasingly disturbing images, not in terms of the unconfirmed fear, just in terms of “THAT’S DISTURBING.”

It starts off innocently enough, with pictures of pancakes and aerated chocolate. Towards the end of the video, you’re watching baby Surinam toads crawl out of their eggs that have been carried by the ugly mother’s back. You don’t have to have a made up fear to feel a little creeped out by that. The video ends with a picture of a pretty teenage girl with Photoshopped trypo-pock marks all over her legs and arms.

Yeah, just plain creepy.

Cole was even mentioned in a new press release today as saying: “We found that people who don’t have the phobia still rate trypophobic images as less comfortable to look at than other images.”

If you have the stomach for it, you can Google this fear and find the same amphibious images.

I believe there probably are some people who feel genuinely uncomfortable when they see the erratic and disorganized circles in a lotus seedpod or piece of Swiss cheese. I also wouldn’t be surprised if these people also struggle anytime anything in their lives is disheveled or out of place.

But to show the equivalent of a David Lynch video of ugly creatures giving birth to smaller ugly creatures and say any discomfort means you have a fear of a pattern…that’s just the power of persuasion, no? Do Cole and Wilkins stand to gain financially if they’re able to get this fear officially recognized as they’re trying to do? It’s possible — they could become the world’s experts on the fear and charge an arm and a leg to cure people from being scared of Photoshopped images of teenage Asian girls. I’m not buying the explanation that we’ve been evolutionarily bred to fear a pattern because poisonous animals were conveniently pock marked in this way, however.

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