Fifteen years later I still crack a snarky grin whenever I recall the student who slammed down her text in fear. Black lines and smudges grew around her eyes as they welled up with tears of freight. All of this drama was quickly followed by an infectious laugh that emanated from an embarrassed face. The source of fear, you ask? The student had inadvertently opened the page of her book to a section on arachnids. The two dimensional form was apparently so startling that it warranted a shriek that would make Jamie Lee Curtis proud.
Is there a root cause for our irrational fears and phobias? Historical and recent evidence suggests that phobias are a type of “evolutionary memory.” Deep within our DNA are coding sequences that correlate with pattern recognition. Recently, Cole and Wilkins* published a study that attempts to explain trypophobia, or the fear of small holes or bubbles. According to their study, a tight collection of soap bubbles or aerated chocolate may induce the sweats or a panic attack. The correlation between bubbles and fear is similar to the phobia that some experience when seeing a spider or snake. Poisons and toxins produced by animals once caused many deaths prior to the cultural evolution that has led us to the present. In the absence of modern medicine, a snake or spider bite might be fatal. In their study on The Fear of Holes, Cole and Wilkins demonstrate that some patterns of holes and bubbles have a “relatively high contrast at midrange spatial frequencies*” similar to that found on many poisonous animals.
Fear not for your phobias, as they are evolutionary relics that protected your ancestors. While irrational today, when given crap by those who laugh when you jump, you can feel good knowing that these fears have deep roots in our biology.
- G. G. Cole, A. J. Wilkins. Fear of Holes. Psychological Science, 2013;
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