Why Are Humans Ticklish?

iStock/andresr
iStock/andresr

Fabian van den Berg:

There are a few ideas about why humans experience ticklishness and there are also two kinds of tickling. One of them is a defense mechanism or warning sign that something moving is on you. Think parasites on your skin or ... no, don’t think about that. The fancy name for that is knismesis. This is the kind of tickling you feel when something soft brushes up against you. Usually, this type of tickling doesn’t make you laugh; It tends to give you goosebumps, and feel a bit uncomfortable.

Another aspect of tickling has to do with the specific spots that are ticklish. The fancy name for this one is gargalesis. This kind of tickling is more intense and leads to uncontrolled laughter. Gargalesis isn’t as straightforward as knismesis, and most likely serves some kind of social aspect and helps us bond.


Quora

There are specific spots that are ticklish in this latter way, and those are important for parents and children to form bonds. When we grow up those same spots are also erogenous zones, which help with mating, another social activity we engage in.

That these spots are also vulnerable areas on our bodies is probably no coincidence. Some experts think there is an aspect of tickling behavior meant to teach youngsters to protect their most vulnerable areas.

But other animals tickle, too. Our close cousin the chimpanzee tickles during play, though they make more of a panting, out-of-breath sound when they are laughing. They enjoy it, which they show by not leaving you alone afterward because they want you to keep going.

Elephants can be tickled as well, but my favorite is the rat.

A woman plays with her pet rat
iStock/Imagesbybarbara

There was a study where it was someone’s job to tickle rats (that must look amazing on your resume). The researchers in question were like, "Come tickle rats with me." Fun aside, this was serious research. It was known that rats make specific high-frequency noises when they play or have sex, noises of enjoyment (kind of like laughing). When they tickled the rats they made the same noises, indicating that the rats were enjoying being tickled, similar to the way humans do. It activates brain areas and pathways that also light up when humans experience joy (at least, the areas analogous to ours).

But a note must be made here: We are often quick to ascribe human emotions to animals, which can be dangerous. Animals like chimps and rats seem to enjoy tickling, so there’s reason to think they experience it in a positive way. But not all animals are like that—so experts aren't 100 percent sure they really like being tickled all that much. (Unfortunately, we can’t ask them.)

A tragic example of misinterpretation is the slow loris. These critters can be tickled, but they don’t like it. What humans interpret as enjoyment is actually fear, making the playful behavior in humans or primates literal torture for this cute-looking animal.

Tickling likely serves as a warning signal and training to protect ourselves. It has a secondary feature in humans, other primates, and rats it seems: to facilitate social bonding. But be careful who you tickle—not all animals experience the same enjoyment (some humans don’t like it either).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

What's the Difference Between a Rabbit and a Hare?

iStock.com/Carmen Romero
iStock.com/Carmen Romero

Hippity, hoppity, Easter's on its way—and so is the eponymous Easter bunny. But aside from being a magical, candy-carrying creature, what exactly is Peter Cottontail: bunny, rabbit, or hare? Or are they all just synonyms for the same adorable animal?

In case you've been getting your fluffy, long-eared mammals mixed up, we've traveled down the rabbit hole to set the record straight. Although rabbits and hares belong to the same grass-munching family—called Leporidae—they're entirely different species with unique characteristics. It would be like comparing sheep and goats, geneticist Steven Lukefahr of Texas A&M University told National Geographic.

If you aren't sure which animal has been hopping around and helping themselves to the goodies in your vegetable garden, take a closer look at their ears. In general, hares have longer ears and larger bodies than rabbits. Rabbits also tend to be more social creatures, while hares prefer to keep to themselves.

As for the baby animals, they go by different names as well. Baby hares are called leverets, while newborn rabbits are called kittens or kits. So where exactly do bunnies fit into this narrative? Originally, the word bunny was used as a term of endearment for a young girl, but its meaning has evolved over time. Bunny is now a cutesy, childlike way to refer to both rabbits and hares—although it's more commonly associated with rabbits these days. With that said, the Easter bunny is usually depicted as a rabbit, but the tradition is thought to have originated with German immigrants who brought their legend of an egg-laying hare called "Osterhase" to America.

In other ambiguous animal news, the case of Bugs Bunny is a little more complicated. According to scientist and YouTuber Nick Uhas, the character's long ears, fast speed, and solitary nature seem to suggest he's a hare. However, in the cartoon, Bugs is shown burrowing underground, which doesn't jive with the fact that hares—unlike most rabbits—live aboveground. "We can draw the conclusion that Bugs may be a rabbit with hare-like behavior or a hare with rabbit nesting habits," Uhas says.

The conversation gets even more confusing when you throw jackrabbits into the mix, which aren't actually rabbits at all. Jackrabbits are various species of large hare that are native to western North America; the name itself is a shortened version of "jackass rabbit," which refers to the fact that the animal's ears look a little like a donkey's.

A jackrabbit
Connor Mah, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

As Mark Twain once famously wrote about the creature, "He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one-third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but the jackass." (Fun fact: Black-tailed jackrabbits' extra-long ears actually help them stay cool in the desert. The blood vessels in their ears enlarge when it gets hot, causing blood to flow to their ears and ridding their bodies of excess heat.)

Rabbits, hares, and jackrabbits all have one thing in common, though: They love a good salad. So if you happen across one of these hopping creatures, give them some grass or weeds—and skip the carrots. Bugs Bunny may have loved the orange vegetable, but most hares and rabbits would prefer leafy greens.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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