Aristotle, Socrates, Galileo, Da Vinci and Darwin are just a few of history’s great minds who have speculated about the origin and purpose of tickling. My four-year-old grand-daughter, Rosie, is an inveterate tickler. She revels in the power that tickling gives her over older and larger people. I also think she does it because she likes to be tickled herself. For some reason, however, she has picked me as the primary target for her assaults, as small children and dogs often do.
I must have victim written all over my face, as I can hardly visit anywhere, without some child or dog giving me the business. Little dogs, like my daughter’s Bichon Frise, jump on my lap and try to lick my face. Our niece’s Siberian Huskies slobber on my hands, steal my fur hat, or try to bury a bone (the one in my arm). I’m also a prime target for mimes. For her part Rosie never misses an opportunity to tickle me.
Today evolutionary psychology may be close to finding some answers regarding why people tickle. Robert R. Provine, a psychologist at the University of Maryland says that tickling is a “mechanism for social bonding between close companions. It helps forge relationships between family members and friends...”
According to Provine, infants begin laughing in response to tickling within the first few months of life. He says “It’s one of the first forms of communication between babies and their caregivers…” Parents tickle because they are so reinforced by the baby’s laughter.
Back in the 1980’s University of Iowa psychiatrist Donald Black noted that the most ticklish parts of the body tend to be where we have protective reflexes. He believed that children learn to protect their necks, ribs, feet, and armpits as they wrestle and tickle each other. In 1924, J.C. Gregory proposed that ticklish places on the body were those most vulnerable in combat and learning to guard them conveyed an evolutionary advantage. Laughter in response to such tickling may be seen as a sign of submission or a way to say “uncle”.
Besides possibly developing self-defense skills, tickling among children can reinforce sibling and/or peer bonding. It also may be an alternative to violence intended to hurt or dominate each other. When one sibling tickles another relentlessly, to point of unpleasantness it is called “tickle torture.”
Based on his observations of chimpanzees and orangutans, Provine also believes that the “ha-ha” of human laugher most likely evolved from the inevitable panting that takes place during prolonged tickle fights.
Some experts believe that tickling requires social interaction and that’s one reason why you can’t tickle yourself. University of California psychologist Christine Harris, however, believes that tickling is more like a automatic reflex. To test her hypothesis, she built a robotic arm that looked like a tickling machine. She christened her creation — Mechanical Meg. Subjects were blindfold and then tickled by what they thought was Mechanical Meg. Actually they were tickled by a human assistant hiding under a table (Meg didn’t actually work). The subjects laughed and squirmed anyway, demonstrating that tickling did not require the perceived presence of another human being.
I personally believe that you can tickle someone without actually touching them. When our kids were preschoolers I would sometimes tickle them on the knees (a much neglected tickle target). Then I would sit across the room and tell them that I could tickle them by remote control. I would stare seriously at their knees and wiggle my fingers and they would invariably start laughing and grab their knees.
Around the turn of the century scientists classified tickling into major categories. “Knismesis” is evoked by a very light touch on the skin. It may produce an itching sensation, but not laughter. It is the sensation you get when an insect crawls on you and may have evolved in mammals to help them keep rid of parasites.
The other class of tickling is called “gargalesis” and is achieved by repeatedly applying pressure to sensitive areas. Gargalesis is generally met with uncontrollable laughter. It is generally pleasurable, but can be extremely uncomfortable when it involves persistent involuntary tickling. Gargalesis was once believed to be the exclusive province of primates, but more recent research suggests that rats can also be tickled. I pity the poor graduate assistant who had that job.
Charles Darwin theorized that tickling was related to the anticipation of pleasure. He based this on the observation that ticklish people often laugh before being actually tickled . In addition unexpected tickling from a complete stranger is generally perceived as an assault and no laughing matter. Darwin believed that in order to laugh at a tickle, you cannot know the exact location where you were going to be touched. Knowing where the stimulation was going to take place removes all anticipation and that’s why people cannot effectively tickle themselves. More recent research seems to confirm this notion.
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and her colleagues at University College London analyzed self-tickling using sophisticated brain imaging studies. Her studies show your brain can predict sensations when your own movements are the cause, but not if someone else does it. She says, “When you try to tickle yourself, the cerebellum predicts the sensation and this prediction is used to cancel the response of other brain areas to the tickle. Knight Ridder newspaper reporter Usha Lee McFarling says,” the cerebellum acts as a killjoy, squelching the tickling response if the tickling doesn’t come from an outside source.
Research also suggests that tickling is a young person’s game and often between four and seven years of age many children no longer see it as pleasurable. A survey of college students found that that only 32% reported that they enjoy being tickled and about 36% said they didn’t like the experience at all. . It probably has a lot to do with the wide variability in different peoples’ pain and pressure thresholds. Provine says that interest and participation in tickling drops off significantly after the age of forty. I must be an exception, since I have to frequently use tickling in self-defense. I think it must be like jumping into an ice cold swimming pool. Young children have no problem doing it, but the older you get the harder it becomes.
Some authorities say that if you shut your eyes tight and concentrated real hard during a tickle attack, you can stop the sensation. I think I’ll try that next time, but I’m skeptical.
Based on a column that originally appeared in the Southern Indiana News Tribune,