By Vicki Santillano / Divine Caroline
For all the laughter it produces, sometimes being ticklish is just annoying. It has prevented me from truly enjoying pedicures and far too many back massage attempts have ended with me in a fit of giggles.
Try as I might to fight it and take the focus off my jumpy nerve endings, the slightest brush against a certain spot is enough to make me squirm and laugh uncontrollably.
Why are we ticklish in the first place? Is it an inherited trait passed down from our ancestors or is it a learned social act? And why is it that we laugh, despite our discomfort?
A Physiological and Social Phenomenon
When it comes to the question of why certain parts of our bodies—feet, chest, lower backs, underarms, etc.—are more sensitive than others, some believe that it’s an evolutionary trait we’ve developed to protect ourselves from small bugs, spiders, and other surprise attackers. The key word here is surprise—the grazing touch usually needs to come unexpectedly to yield laughter. Research has shown that the cerebellum, which registers touch, shows more activity when the touch is a surprise rather than anticipated. If the brain recognizes that the touch is coming, it will make the nerve response less intense, which is why we can’t tickle ourselves successfully.
Why we laugh when tickled is possibly where social cues come into play. Tickling that produces laughter is referred to as gargalesis, a term coined by two psychologists, Arthur Allin and G. Stanley Hall. (They differentiate this type of tickling from knismesis, which is akin to a light itch.) Gargalesis usually only occurs when the tickler and the tickler’s “victim” are familiar and comfortable with each other. A child being tickled by his or her parent, or a person being tickled by a partner or close friend, will often attempt to escape the attack, but will laugh when doing so. However, imagine if a random person on the street or even someone you just met tried to tickle you. The response would probably not be laughter—in fact, it would be downright awkward and creepy.