Basic Science

Why do we laugh when we are tickled?

Lots of things make us laugh. But that’s usually because we THINK they are funny. Tickling is different. It has got something to do with your sense of touch.

You can tickle your friend and your friend can tickle you back. But you just cannot tickle yourself. Go ahead and try! You just can not tickle yourself – at least not in the same way that someone else can.

It is something most people realise when they are kids. But for years, scientists have been trying to figure out exactly why you can not tickle yourself and if there is anyway to trick your brain so that you can.

But first of all, we need to understand, why do we laugh hysterically when other people tickle us?

When we are touched, the nerves on the outer layer of our skin get stimulated and therefore they start sending signals through the nervous system to the brain.

When someone else tickles you, it activates a part of your brain called as the hypothalamus which prepares you for pain.

Some scientists think you laugh when you are tickled because you are signalling submission to someone who has you in a vulnerable position. They think that laughing on getting tickled by others could be a defence mechanism. This mechanism has evolved over the years as a result of being touched suddenly in vulnerable areas.

This laughter could either be a way to escape from a tight situation or to accept defeat to the person tickling you so that they stop further tickles. Areas that are more prone to getting tickled are our vulnerable areas like neck, stomach and armpits.

Think about where you are ticklish and think about what you do when you get tickled there. Most of us kind of curl up or hug our middles or try to squirm away as we try to stop being tickled, even though we’re laughing at the same time. And under this very ticklish outside body parts are some pretty important inside body parts like our hearts and stomachs. So scientists think that when we are tickled in those places we cover them up to try to get away because we are sort of trying to protect the important body parts underneath from getting hurt, even if we do not really think about it. That can also explain why tickling makes us laugh. Scientists think we laugh as a message to the person that is tickling us -again, even if we are not really doing it on purpose. And that message is : Stop! You win! That may sound kind of… uhmm funny, but it is like we are practicing doing the things that might keep us safe. And scientists also think this is part of why we can not really tickle ourselves. This is because when your brain gets the message that you are about to get tickled, say from your belly, it also realises that another part of your body – your own hand is what is doing the tickling. But if the tickle comes from someone else, we definitely feel it.

It is very hard to tickle yourself because your brain anticipates things going around you in order to help speed up your response times. You can not tickle yourself because your brain couldn’t care less about your attempts at tickling. It basically says “duhh.. I know. I basically told your fingers to do that.” Think about it like this, when you see a scary movie for the first time, you jump when the maniac appears. When you see the same movie for the second time, you don’t get so surprised. The same goes for tickling. It is the element of surprise that causes the giddy laughter from the tickles.

That might also explain why some people really hate being tickled or react by thrashing. So it makes sense that you can not tickle yourself because you can not surprise your own brain. When you start moving your fingers towards your palm, stomach, armpit or wherever, your brain is one step ahead of your touch. It knows before hand where your fingers will land and that they will not hurt you.

But when someone else is tickling you, you can not predict precisely when and where their tickle attack will strike. The unpredictability makes you more sensitive to the touch and you react by laughing. The feeling that you are in control of your body’s movement means your own body’s touches don’t feel like tickles.

Our brain has been designed to work in such a way that it knows in advance our own movements. It knows where our hand can reach. There is no element of surprise or threat even if touched in vulnerable areas. Hence, we can not tickle ourselves.

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Nerine Tina Fernandes

My name is Nerine Tina Fernandes and I am from the beautiful state of Goa. I've loved to read ever since I was a child. And off late, I've been trying to write as well. My goal in life is simple - be happy and keep others around you happy. Thank you for taking the time to view my e-portfolio.

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