>>The Mystery of Ticklish Laughter

The Mystery of Ticklish Laughter

The Tickle Machine developed at UCSD

The Tickle Machine developed at UCSD

This is a little off the beaten laughter path, but believe it or not, some research is being conducted in the area of tickling. In fact, researchers at the University of California in San Diego have even constructed a “tickle machine.”

Some scientists believe that laughing caused by tickling is a built-in reflex. If this is true, then, theoretically, you should be able to tickle yourself. But you can’t — not even in the same area and the same way someone else tickles you into hysteria! The information sent to your spinal cord and brain should be exactly the same, but it’s not. Apparently, for tickling to work, the brain needs tension and surprise — something that’s obviously missing when you tickle yourself. How the brain uses this information about tension and surprise is still a mystery.

Why Do We Tickle?

Trying to unearth the evolutionary basis for peculiarities of psychology and physiology is a notoriously treacherous enterprise. But it is also irresistible and currently in vogue. What, we might wonder, could be the adaptive value of tickle?

One possible function is that tickling may help facilitate the bond between parent and offspring. A child smiles when tickled, which produces smiles in the caregiver. This reciprocal smiling and laughing produces positive social interaction. We like sharing such facial expressions with conspecifics, because it usually connotes positive motives. The one thing this doesn’t help explain is why people usually find tickle unpleasant, rather than pleasant, and why they so often resist it.

Another possible evolutionary function was bandied about by several writers at the turn of the century. Ticklishness, these writers suggested, is greatest in places on the body that are most vulnerable in arm-to-arm combat. Being ticklish in such spots confers an adaptive advantage by motivating individuals to protect these areas (Gregory 1924). Consistent with this notion is the 1984 observation by University of Iowa psychiatrist Donald W. Black that ticklish spots are also places where protective reflexes are often found. One difficulty with this hypothesis is that the hands and fingers are highly vulnerable to injury during fighting, but they are among the least ticklish spots. And although we might find them disarming, it is not clear what protective benefit the smiling and laughter might confer in a combat situation.

With some reservations, I offer a third suggestion that is basically a hybrid of the two proposals just mentioned. Consider again the basic, very odd facts of tickling. People exhibit defensive movements and generally report not enjoying the sensation of tickle, but they simultaneously display a facial expression suggesting “Boy, I’m having fun!” Perhaps the disconnection between outward expression and inward feeling is itself adaptive. The discomfort from tickling motivates the growing child or ape to develop combat skills in much the same way that other rough-and-tumble play does. The facial expressions, on the other hand, tell conspecifics “Keep doing what you’re doing; I like it!” In other words, the smiling and laughter encourage the tickler to continue. If tickling produced a negative facial expression, conspecifics would be far less likely to engage in it during playful bouts—thus cutting off the development of combat skills that might have survival value.

Might not this arrangement leave the ticklish person vulnerable to enemies? Indeed, tickle-torture by children suggests it sometimes does. But recall, most tickling is done by parents, siblings or friends engaging in play. It is this very context that, in my view, frequently fools us into thinking that the actual sensation of tickle is pleasant and has beguiled many theorists into assuming that certain conscious ideas (such as “this is a friendly source” or “this is a mock attack”) must be in place in order for tickling to elicit laughter.

It may not be possible conclusively to test adaptive stories like the one I have just offered. However, my suggestion does make some predictions. Even among apes, if my suggestion is correct, we should be able to observe that the outward expressions of tickle actively promote the interactions. A close study of the role of tickle in the interactions of nonhuman primates thus should help to decide the plausibility of this hypothesis. Of course, as Stephen Jay Gould and others have noted, it is always possible that a biological phenomenon may be not adaptive per se, but merely a side effect of a mechanism designed for another function. If this is true, the mystery of this aspect of our primate heritage may long remain just that.

Pleasure or pain? Social response or reflex? Tickling and the laughter it induces are an enigmatic aspect of our primate heritage

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This article includes valuable extra resources but you first need to register to the LOU Laughter Academy to access them. Doing so is free and you can unsubscribe at any time.

(Refresh this page when you come back after signing up to display all of its content.)

2017-01-26T20:59:14+00:00 Laughter Blog|

About the Author:

Sebastien Gendry is a speaker, trainer and consultant, expert in laughter for wellness and wellbeing. He played a major role in introducing Laughter Therapy in North America, Russia, Palestine and other countries, inspired the creation of 100s of Laughter Clubs worldwide, and is the creator of the Laughter Wellness method. He has been offering a variety of laughter programs every year on three to four continents for the past decade and continues to do so.


  1. Bee Dwight September 2, 2017 at 11:54 pm - Reply

    I just came across this concept tonight and I’m pretty irritated by it. Even though I have come across countless people saying that they most certainly can tickle themselves this myth persists. I certainly can… I’m very ticklish and just stroking fingers across my skin tickles very uncomfortably. And I am not schizophrenic despite what so many articles suggest.

    Why must people speak in absolutes? Google this and article after articles says you can’t. Some people can’t, some can. It’s one of those things.

    If there’s some specific sort of response that’s intended here, no one has bothered to explain it.

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