What is the purpose of tickling?

Stop it, I love it


Also in this week's column:

What is the purpose of tickling?

Asked by Lou Portman of Los Altos, California, USA

As every child knows, tickling is the act of touching a part of the body so as to cause involuntary laughter.

The subject of tickling has intrigued philosophers since antiquity. Even Plato and Aristotle speculated about tickling and its purpose.

"Tickle" is derived from the Old English word tinclian meaning "to touch lightly".

None other than Charles Darwin was the first scientist to seriously analyse this most peculiar human behaviour. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) Darwin described in detail the involuntary spasms tickling triggers in babies, children, adults, and non-human primates. He concluded that tickling was an ingredient in forming and keeping social bonds. Such bonding occurs through stimulating each other to laugh and feel merry. This is particularly true for parents and children.

Darwin noted that the key to success in tickling is that "the precise point to be tickled must not be known" to the person being tickled. Thus, it is surprise rather than tactile pressure that is a key ingredient in tickling.

Subsequent laboratory experiments have found that in people who are extremely suggestible, the threat of being tickled without laying a finger on them is enough to induce hysterics. This is as effective with adults as with children and provides a clue to the fact that tickling is not merely a physical sensation as Darwin theorised.

Apart from Darwin's social bond theory for the importance of tickling, there is a simpler theory. The sensation felt when being tickled is similar to the one felt when insects crawl on the body. The tickle response may be a protective warning device against the stings and bites of harmful insects.

Interesting facts

  • It is unknown why certain areas of the body are more ticklish than others.
  • Men and women are just as "ticklish". But a few studies suggest that, if either, men may be slightly more ticklish than women.
  • You cannot tickle yourself. If you try, you will not succeed since there is no surprise or lack of control in the stimulation. But a few studies dispute this as well.
  • 85 per cent of adults in some way or another enjoy being tickled, tickling others, or watching others being tickled.
  • Tickling was used as a torture by the ancient Romans.
  • Tickling is used in sexual fetishism where it is known as "tickle torture".
  • Research by Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London found that robotic arms used to tickle people are just as effective as human arms.
  • Research by Dr D S Bennett of the Integrative Treatment Centres in Denver established that the tickling response is well established by four months of age.
  • Research headed by Dr M Blagrove from the University of Wales in Swansea shows that the normal tickling response may be absent in those with schizophrenia.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au


Other stories you might like

  • Cuba ransomware gang scores almost $44m in ransom payments across 49 orgs, say Feds

    Hancitor is at play

    The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says 49 organisations, including some in government, were hit by Cuba ransomware as of early November this year.

    The attacks were spread across five "critical infrastructure", which, besides government, included the financial, healthcare, manufacturing, and – as you'd expect – IT sectors. The Feds said late last week the threat actors are demanding $76m in ransoms and have already received at least $43.9m in payments.

    The ransomware gang's loader of choice, Hancitor, was the culprit, distributed via phishing emails, or via exploit of Microsoft Exchange vulnerabilities, compromised credentials, or Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) tools. Hancitor – also known as Chanitor or Tordal –  enables a CobaltStrike beacon as a service on the victim's network using a legitimate Windows service like PowerShell.

    Continue reading
  • Graviton 3: AWS attempts to gain silicon advantage with latest custom hardware

    Key to faster, more predictable cloud

    RE:INVENT AWS had a conviction that "modern processors were not well optimized for modern workloads," the cloud corp's senior veep of Infrastructure, Peter DeSantis, claimed at its latest annual Re:invent gathering in Las Vegas.

    DeSantis was speaking last week about AWS's Graviton 3 Arm-based processor, providing a bit more meat around the bones, so to speak – and in his comment the word "modern" is doing a lot of work.

    The computing landscape looks different from the perspective of a hyperscale cloud provider; what counts is not flexibility but intensive optimization and predictable performance.

    Continue reading
  • The Omicron dilemma: Google goes first on delaying office work

    Hurrah, employees can continue to work from home and take calls in pyjamas

    Googlers can continue working from home and will no longer be required to return to campuses on 10 January 2022 as previously expected.

    The decision marks another delay in getting more employees back to their desks. For Big Tech companies, setting a firm return date during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a nightmare. All attempts were pushed back so far due to rising numbers of cases or new variants of the respiratory disease spreading around the world, such as the new Omicron strain.

    Google's VP of global security, Chris Rackow, broke the news to staff in a company-wide email, first reported by CNBC. He said Google would wait until the New Year to figure out when campuses in the US can safely reopen for a mandatory return.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021