Before I get into the science of tickling, I wanted to share with you that I learned this week that it is impossible to tickle yourself. Did you know that? About the closest you can get to tickling yourself is tickling the roof of your mouth with your tongue, but that doesn’t really count, does it?
Tickling and being ticklish is actually way more interesting than I expected. The reason is because scientists have discovered that not only is it a neurological response to some forms of touch, but it can also be a learned behavior. One thing is for sure, a lot of information about tickling can be found in our evolutionary past.
According to Robert R. Provine, a neuroscientist and author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, tickling is a “mechanism for social bonding between close companions. It helps forge relationships between family members, friends and lovers.” I read a very interesting article on Popsci about the topic this week called FYI: What Is the Evolutionary Purpose of Tickling. That article highlighted many interesting aspects about tickling including:
You cannot tickle yourself
Tickling could be where the origin of laughter begins
In children, tickling can hone reflexes and self-defense skills
Your brain tells you that it is inappropriate to tickle a stranger
Laughter in response to tickling is learned in the first few months of life
At about age 40, we stop tickling and typically lose interest in that activity
The face-to-face activity during tickling opens the door for other forms of interaction
The most ticklish parts of the body are the most vulnerable during combat (feet, chest, neck, armpits)
Some people who are very sensitive to touch might react differently to tickling than someone who is not as sensitive. This is just the same as some people might hear or taste things differently than others. For some people, tickling and laughter are learned defense mechanisms used in certain situations if they feel uncomfortable. It often lightens the mood. If you close your eyes and concentrate during a tickle attack, you actually have the power to dull the sensation itself. Fascinating, isn’t it?