We can laugh and curl up when someone tickles our feet, our chin, or our stomach but mostly it is involuntary. But why is that so funny? Why are people ticklish? We’ll explain it to you.
Tickling is obviously a social phenomenon, but it is also one of the questions that science has found some explanatory models too but no clear answer, so it is science behind why tickle makes us laugh. It’s both terrible and beautiful at the same time to be tickled. This is because being tickled comes from a reflex to protect sensitive parts of the body. When we realize that the supposed attack is just fun, we have to laugh, but why do we laugh when tickled?
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Knismesis: Unpleasant Stimulus – Why Are People Ticklish?
Knismesis is tickling when a fly crawls over the skin. Some also know it when they massage the gums with an electric toothbrush and then vibrate the lips so that it tickles uncomfortably. This is known as Knismesis. It is clearly an uncomfortable tickling and that doesn’t even tempt you to laugh. Explaining this form of tickling is not that difficult in itself. It is practically a preliminary stage to pain. We feel an unpleasant stimulus, but since the stimulus does not pose a real threat, our brain does not register it as pain, but as annoying.
Gargalesis: Ambivalent Feelings
Gargalesis, on the other hand, describes that tickling with which we have this well known happy feeling. When somebody tickles us on purpose, on the one hand, we try to evade, on the other hand, we have to laugh a little. There are also certain parts of the body where we are particularly ticklish.
We are particularly ticklish in the areas that are most vulnerable, for example on the soles of the feet, under the arms, or on the stomach. When we are tickled, the nerve cells first send the message ‘attack from outside’ to the brain. This triggers the protective reflex, which is also reflected in our face: the facial expression initially resembles that of a person who feels pain. Tickling is also a special form of pain for medical professionals because both sensations are transmitted by the same nerve cells.
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But if someone we know tickles us, we find it funny, because we know that there is no danger from them and we communicate this to our brain. And the more we like a person, the more fun it is. If, on the other hand, a spider running over our arm tickles us, this change in perception does not occur. It’s just uncomfortable. The surprise effect is just as important for the sensation of being ticklish. So we cannot tickle ourselves, because our brain then classifies the touch as harmless in advance.
Even small babies respond to tickling by laughing. This indicates that it is a form of communication that is very deeply anchored in us. This in turn suggests that tickling also communicates a strong emotional bond. It unfolds that monkeys and other animals are also ticklish and even in monkeys, one can observe a reaction that comes very close to laughter.
Why Do We Laugh When Tickled?
Why are people ticklish? In what other situations do we laugh? For example when we hear a joke. Laughter is always triggered by a surprise effect, by something unexpected, which gives a situation a new twist, a new context. And that also happens with tickling. We trigger a stimulus in someone that is initially uncomfortable, in a certain way we invade the intimate sphere. At the same time, it is clear through the entire context of the relationship. This is not an attack but meant lovingly. This is probably how laughter can be interpreted.
But because monkeys and babies cannot speak, some researchers even harbor the further assumption that this laugh, with which we react to being tickled, is an evolutionary forerunner of humorous laughter. Monkeys can’t tell jokes, they can only play with each other. So if we laugh at jokes today, then that laugh may have evolved out of the tickle laugh. In short, first, the tickling was then just a joke. But, like so much in evolutionary psychology, it is so far only an unproven assumption.