Why Are Humans Ticklish?
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.
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.
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).
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