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Why Can't You Tickle Yourself?

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By Chris Gayomali

It's darn near impossible to tickle yourself, and the mechanics behind the non-phenomenon of self-tickling are pretty straightforward: Your subconscious mind is always one step ahead of you. Your "unexpected" touch, no matter how cleverly you disguise it, is almost always expected—and that's largely a good thing. Here's how Sara-Jayne Blakemore, a researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, explained it to Scientific American in 2007:

…the cerebellum can predict sensations when your own movement causes them but not when someone else does. When you try to tickle yourself, the cerebellum predicts the sensation and this prediction is used to cancel the response of other brain areas to the tickle.

Two brain regions are involved in processing how tickling feels. The somatosensory cortex processes touch and the anterior cingulate cortex processes pleasant information. We found that both these regions are less active during self-tickling than they are during tickling performed by someone else, which helps to explains why it doesn't feel tickly and pleasant when you tickle yourself. [Scientific American]

The brain is programmed to anticipate unimportant sensations, like your rear against a comfy chair or the socks on your feet. It saves those valuable synapses for the weird and unexpected, like when there's a poisonous spider crawling down the back of your shirt.

Our utter imperviousness to the self-tickle can even conquer technology intended to camouflage it, to an extent. In a recent interview with NPR, professor Jakob Hohwy, a philosophy researcher at Monash University in Australia, outlines a bizarre and wonderfully elaborate experiment designed to trick the brain.

HOST: In his tickling experiment, Hohwy used his own version of the rubber hand trick. He made his subjects wear a pair of video goggles hooked up to a camera on another person's head. And with good old fashioned synchrony, he got them to feel, as if they were actually the person sitting across the table. And in that moment he had them try to tickle their palm.

HOHWY: And then we ask, how ticklish is it? And it turns out that when they do it themselves, they still can't tickle themselves. [NPR]

There is, however, a lone exception to the no-tickling rule: Schizophrenics have the notable ability to tickle themselves on demand. One theory, according to Hohwy, is that "people with schizophrenia are relatively poor at predicting what the sensory consequences will be of their own movement." Somewhere between the triangulation of fingers, eyes, and the unconscious mind, the electrical signals beamed back to the brain hit a snag.

In many ways, our silly inability to self-tickle showcases the powerful machinery of the human mind at its most efficient: Your brain is in a constant state of trying to predict what's about to happen next. It's always one step ahead and looking to the future, even if you necessarily aren't.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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