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Why Are We Ticklish?

Kayla Minsk

We all have most likely been tickled or have tickled someone else at some point in our lives. Maybe your response to tickling is uncontrollable laughter while someone else may not seem phased at all. There have been many studies and formulated theories as to why we are ticklish. Let’s take a look at some different ideas. 

First off, there are two types of tickling: knismesis and gargalesis. Knismesis is the reflex we get from a light irritation. The discomfort and adrenaline following by the tickle causes our body to involuntarily want to remove the source of discomfort (in this case, the tickle). For example, when a bug crawls on our arm, we flinch and brush at the irritated spot. 

Gargalesis is the intense tickling that causes people to laugh when touched in a sensitive area. Gargalesis is the type of tickling that stimulates the hypothalamus, the part in your brain in charge of emotional reactions and the “fight or flight” response. This led to the birth of the theory that our squirming response is an automatic reaction when touched in our most vulnerable places for attack, such as our neck, feet, and rib cage or stomach. Similar to the fight or flight theory, researchers believe that this reflex-like response is an instinctive defense mechanism that compresses our body, making it less open for attack.

Places like our feet and other common ticklish spots are packed with nerve receptors that are linked to the somatosensory cortex, a part of the brain that receives sensory information from the body. It is believed that this sensitivity makes it easier for us to react faster when threatened.

“Our squirming response is an automatic reaction when touched in our most vulnerable places for attack, such as our neck, feet, and rib cage or stomach.”

The emotional side of tickling, such as uncontrollable laughter, is thought to be an instinctive emotional response. Your laughter, rather than indicating actual happiness or enjoyment, is just a response to the hypothalamus being stimulated. 

Another aspect in tickling someone is the element of surprise. The reason we can’t tickle ourselves is because we are anticipating it, and since no immediate threat is detected, the fight or flight response isn’t triggered. Similarly, if your friend tells you they are about to try and tickle you, you’re expecting it and may not have an intense reaction. 

Again, researchers and scientists don’t fully understand why some people are ticklish while others are not. However, there have been studies that suggest a person’s emotional state can contribute to their reaction when tickled. For example, someone who is upset, anxious, or angry may not be as ticklish in that moment as someone who is in more of an upbeat mood. As we continue in school, remember to stay in an upbeat–and ticklish– state of mind! 

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