Science: Why Are We Ticklish & What Does It Mean?

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?

Via [Popsci, Boston Globe Online] Image Credit [Aleksandar Todorovic / Shutterstock, Mindy w.m. Chung / Shutterstock]


  • comment-avatar

    Is it possible to tickle someone to death?

    • comment-avatar
      Duduhead 7 years

      Yes because they can’t breath if you don’t stop tickling for a super long time.

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      Ruairi 6 years

      No, the brain is too smart for this to happen. It will either dull the sensation, or pass out from lack of air, in which case the sensation will no longer be felt and normal breathing will recommence. Same reason as why you can’t choke yourself to death using your own hands.

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    King of the Andals 9 years

    An interesting article. It explains quite a bit.

    “It is impossible to tickle yourself. 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?” This isn’t actually true. Running your tongue or finger along the roof of your mouth can tickle a lot, but I know people who have tickled themselves elsewhere. When scrubbing her feet clean, one friend said it tickled a lot. She may have used a tool, but it was still her performing it. Another friend waited until his arm was numb (to eliminate control), picked up his arm with the other hand and ran it across his stomach. He found it just as ticklish as someone else doing it. I have also tried tickling myself, without being numb, having full control and it worked. It didn’t tickle anywhere near as much as it does when someone else is tickling me, but I could only just bare it, so it worked rather well.

    I hope this is also of interest and help.

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      John Witter 7 years

      i can tickle myself at me bottom of the ribs where it juts out and i laugh like cra cra

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    I’d just like to say I don’t think it’s impossible to tickle yourself. I can’t stand scratching an itch on the sole of my foot as it tickles too much. (funnily enough that’s how I got here) It might not actually be tickling myself though, I don’t find it very funny!

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    someone important to life 9 years

    You should of talked more about the science behind tickling but thanks very interseting

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    akp 9 years

    I can absolutely tickle myself. I can’t bear to touch much of anything on my own feet, it’s just too ticklish.

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    Jayden 9 years

    I am super ticklish on my feet and occasionally tickle MYSELF with a brush. I have a tickle fetish and love to be tickled. I can tickle myself. I can also tickle myself right below my boobs.

    • comment-avatar
      oliver 7 years

      I’d like to talk with you about that.

    • comment-avatar
      oliver 6 years

      I’d like to ealk with you about that too. L love tickling woman’s feet

  • comment-avatar
    kadan 9 years

    I like it when people tickle my balls

    • comment-avatar
      Cam 4 years

      Moo at least you told the truth

  • comment-avatar
    Victoria 9 years

    Actually I can tickle my ribs but nowhere else
    But I’m ticklish all over

  • comment-avatar
    carol Berthiaume 8 years

    When I go to my Doctors for breast exam , I can t stand it because I m so ticklish. He really has a hard time examing my breast.

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    Sathya Prabhakar 8 years

    I’m not ticklish at all. I’m still sensitive in other ways such as stepping on sharp objects. I’m only ticklish in my mind. I’m sure everyone has a ticklish mind. You can tickle someone’s mind by telling them funny jokes or funny stories.

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    Very very ticklish 7 years

    Regarding not being able to tickle yourself: DISAGREE. I cannot even touch the bottoms of my feet and find it so hard to clean them without kicking myself! This whole ‘impossible’ thing should basically not be used in science when not every since specimen has been tested. Use the word rare.

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      Annalyn 7 years

      I know right! Thank You.
      Happens to me too, and also just in my pelvic/hip area on the opposite sides just lower down my navel, just one light scratch from my fingers and I’m down. :)

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      George 6 years

      Thanks King of the Andals. Most people assume tickling is just a joke that can be controlled. They have no idea how annoying it is. In Italian it says ” soffrire solletico” Which translates to “suffer” maybe from the Latin root of the language.
      I think those with minimum sensation can, but in all my 50 years, am looking to see if someone can teach me how to control it

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    Barbara D Kraatz 6 years

    I am not ticklish anywhere and have not been since I was a small child. Unlike most children however, I was only ticklish in one or two small areas instead of several from neck down. The ticklish sensation simply disappeared well before reaching my teen years.

    Sharing this information with friends, family, and even some work associates will always lead to the same response…many unsuccessful attempts to prove me wrong before finally giving up and accepting that not all people share in this very common sensation. I am the type that prefers not to be touched so all the failed attempts are rather annoying but have become the normal, expected responses.

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    jayne 6 years

    very interesting—we all need something light—and may b some tickling 2

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    Penquinnishy 5 years

    Am I the only one who is ticklish on ears?

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    matt 4 years

    A woman at work ran her finger from the neck over the spine to the spot on the back you can’t reach with your hands and it made me flail because it was really ticklish. but i do the same to others or even my son and I get no response whatsoever. as if they are immune. turns out i’m still ticklish all over and nearly 40.