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Why Are We Ticklish?

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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.

Add a Comment4 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

What if you are over ticklish and every time you touched anywhere your skin is sensative to it or when my wife touches her cold hands or feet to me its like a painful burning sensation. Has my body become over sensative?

February 22, 2012 - 6:59pm
EmpowHER Guest

Actually, it is found that laughing from tickling is a response to panic! How crazy is that? We laugh because we become panicked from tickling, odd if you ask me.

May 23, 2010 - 9:59pm
EmpowHER Guest

Hi Anonymous,

What a great question. An answer to why some people are ticklish and others are not is not that simple. But here is what I did find: being tickled is a physiological response alerting us to a specific type of threat. That is why vulnerable parts of our bodies -- feet, chest, and armpits, are among the most ticklish. It is a defensive mechanism that causes us to squirm and laugh.

Another thing that scientists contend is that being ticklish may even be learned. Think about it as a child, your Mother tries to TICKLE you to make you laugh and so you do. :-) Also, you are only ticklish when someone else touches you as you cannot tickle yourself, it is almost as if it is a response to being violated by someone else.

Remember that being tickled is also a cute thing as a way of being accosted with love from an interested partner. So laugh, giggle and enjoy the emotional response of your body!

May 2, 2010 - 8:25am
EmpowHER Guest

When I was young I was very ticklish, but nothing or no can make me ticklisy, Why?

May 2, 2010 - 8:00am
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