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Does the new iPhone creep you out? Scientists grapple with why tiny holes scare some people

Phil Schiller spoke about the new iPhone 11 Pro and Max during an Apple event Tuesday. Tony Avelar/Associated Press/FR155217 AP via AP

As Apple debuted its newest iPhones on Tuesday, a striking new feature took center stage: a three-lens setup that puts a near-professional camera in the hands of anyone who can afford the $999 to $1099 devices. Three lenses are a lot better than two - unless they send you reeling in disgust.

That’s the unexpected reaction thousands of Apple fans shared on social media as images spread of the back of the new phone, where the trio of lenses are crowded into a small square near the top left corner.

‘‘The new iPhone is creeping me ... out with the 3 little cameras,’’ one Twitter user wrote.


The backlash comes from people who say they suffer from an obscure and perplexing condition called ‘‘trypophobia’’ - a fear of clusters of small holes like those found in shoe treads, honeycombs and lotus seed pods. Essex University Professor Geoff Cole, a self-diagnosed trypophobe and researcher in the United Kingdom who studies the condition calls it ‘‘the most common phobia you have never heard of.’’

The phobia isn’t recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which psychologists and psychiatrists use to diagnose patients. But self-described sufferers and some researchers claim the images can evoke a strong emotional response and induce itching, goose bumps, and even nausea and vomiting.

Trypophobia was only named in 2005 after the word began appearing on Reddit and in other online forums, like in a post by an Irish woman named Louise who belonged to an online community of self-described ‘‘weirdoes who have an irrational fear of HOLES.’’

Over the next decade, though, thousands of people have reported suffering from trypophobia. Support groups have popped up on social media. In 2016, Kendall Jenner raised the condition’s profile when she wrote a blog post saying the images give her ‘‘the worst anxiety.’’


‘‘Things that could set me off are pancakes, honeycomb, or lotus heads (the worst!),’’ she wrote. ‘‘It sounds ridiculous but so many people actually have it!’’

But why would these images of harmless stuff possibly bother people? Some scientists are trying to figure out why people cringe at close-up photos of objects as innocuous as a frothy latte.

They have found that even those who don’t feel repulsed by such images often feel uncomfortable looking at a bunch of small holes clustered together. Just as stripes can cause headaches and flashing lights can induce seizures, clusters of holes might have a physiological effect on the brain.

Researcher Arnold Wilkins, a professor emeritus at the University of Essex, theorizes the mathematical principals hidden in the patterns require the brain to use more oxygen and energy, which can be distressing.

‘‘The images have the same statistical properties and are intrinsically difficult for the brain to process, partly because we’ve evolved to look at images in nature,’’ Wilkins said in an interview with The Washington Post. ‘‘We know the images are difficult to process computationally by the neurons of the brain, they use more brain energy.’’

Photos of honeycombs and strawberries - common sources of the creeps, or worse, for people with trypophobia - also share those mathematical qualities with more sinister sights like mold and skin lesions.

Other research suggests the discomfort might come from an innate drive to avoid infectious diseases and contaminated food. Some have also hypothesized the fear could stem from an evolutionary response to dangerous animals like poisonous frogs and insects, which often display patterns similar to those seen trypophobic photos.


What can you do if you want to wretch every time you see the new iPhone?

Your best bet is to buy a black iPhone 11 Pro or 11 Pro Max so that the camera lenses blend in with the rest of the phone, Wilkins said. Or try covering one eye when you see the phones, he added, which helps reduce activity in the brain and has been shown to prevent seizures caused by flashing lights.

Some sufferers have also responded to gradual exposure therapy. A 2018 case study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry by researchers at Universidad de Valparaíso in Chile found one girl who feared photos of small holes felt better after viewing numerous images over a period of time.

The researchers found that approach only went so far, though. The girl whose fear diminished still reported feeling grossed out by photos of tiny holes.