LS Answers: Why are we ticklish?

In the midst of my gap yah I was settling down to my first ever full body Thai massage. It had been a long tiring day of elephant trekking and Pad Thai eating so I thought I deserved a break. After stretching out my weary limbs in the cool beauty parlour, I was just beginning to relax until suddenly to my horror I discovered that I couldn’t  stop giggling: I was too ticklish!

It’s fair to say that I am one of the most ticklish people I have met, but what explains this feeling of ticklishness? Why is our reaction to tickling laughter? And can we control our reactions to a tickle?

The two distinctive tickling reactions are described by the names Knismesis and Gargalesis. Knismesis is triggered by a light touch or itchiness usually induced by creepy crawlies or soft feathers brushing your skin and can apparently even turn a great white shark into a hypnotic state. Gargalesis refers to the feeling elicited from repeated high pressure to sensitive areas such as feet and armpits. A theory to explain why these specific sensitive exist around the body is because foetuses may require them to establish the most favourable positions in the womb whilst developing.

The majority of people react to gargalesis with laughter. The cause of this is believed to stem back to our evolutionary ancestors as tickling may have been a way to teach defence mechanisms to one another, and the evoking laughter showed that tickle attack was only in jest. This is evidenced by the fact that the areas of the body where we are most ticklish are also the places where we are most likely to be attacked. It is also thought to be associated with bonding as people tend to only react to tickling positively when it comes from someone they trust rather than the confusion and alarm you may experience if a stranger began to tickle you.

MRI studies have been used to illustrate the physiology of tickling. A combination consisting of the somatosensory cortex which analyses touch and the anterior cingulated cortex which is associated with pleasure have been to be behind the tickling sensation. These studies have also shown how when you decided to tickle yourself, the cerebellum sends a message to the somatosensory cortex which tells it the exact position where you were intending to tickle so the feelings are inhibited.

It has been said that if you close your eyes and concentrate whilst being tickled you can shrink its effects, so if you fancy exercising some Derren Brown mind control techniques, you may be able to no longer fall prey to another tickle attack again.

Hayley Williams

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