Why Are You so Ticklish?

Published on: 01/05/2021

Do you get tickled easily? Or are you immune to tickle attacks? Find out the science behind our body’s response to being tickled.

When it comes to tickle responses, we vary in our sensitivity. Watching babies being tickled to laughter can be heartwarming, but we also have to remember that not everyone likes to be tickled. What is meant to be a fun game for one person may be a cause of annoyance or even an unpleasant experience for another.

Both being a noun and a verb, a tickle is that sensation you feel due to light touches on your skin. Oftentimes it causes laughter, other times just plain itching. 

How Do We Get Tickled?

If you are one of those who are very ticklish, or if you know someone who is, you might have already wondered what causes this sensation.

Upon reviewing the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of participants being tickled, researchers determined that it is our hypothalamus that is responsible for this reaction. This part of our brain, which accounts for our fight or flight responses, is activated when we are being tickled. As such, this tells us that our response when being tickled is involuntary.

Some scientists even believe that laughing while being in a tickle match could be your body's way of signaling your submission to the person touching, a mechanism meant to save you from further tickles. Others think that the laughter response is something we pick up in childhood — that we associate playful tickles because we are already laughing in those settings. 

The Curious Case of Tickles

As early as 350 BC, Aristotle already wrote about tickling. He said that human beings are susceptible to tickling because of the fineness of our skin, and our ability to laugh.

In 1872, Charles Darwin also enumerated some requirements in order to be tickled: a good mood, the element of surprise, and just a light touch on the skin. Several studies have shown that tickling is a natural response and not something we have learned, such as the case of scientist Clarence Leuba who tickled his infant children while wearing a mask. Without knowing whether he was laughing or not, the children still laughed. 

The Two Types of Tickling

While there is still much to be discovered about tickling (such as the evolutionary benefit it offers us), researchers have identified its causes and categorized these into two types: 

  1. Knismesis - This type of tickling is more of a defense mechanism. Instead of making you laugh, you may feel goosebumps — a warning sign that something moving on your skin. It can be useful in alerting you against insect bites, as your natural reaction would be to brush it away. 
  2. Gargalesis - This aspect of tickling deals with specific spots that are ticklish. It is more intense and can lead to uncontrolled laughter. They say that the tickle response (often to push away) is meant for us to protect the most vulnerable parts of our body, such as our abdomen and throat. 

Why Are Some People More Ticklish Than Others?

Some scientists think that it could be genetic, but more studies are needed to determine why some people get tickled more easily than others. For some people, they are more sensitive to touch, so this skin sensitivity plays a role in their tickle response. As such, those who have desensitized nerves (which could be due to injury or surgery in some cases) and those who have lost the sense of feeling in a particular part of their body, are not that likely to experience the tickling response.

So whether a tickle attack may make you giggle, cringe or have no effect on you at all, it is best to accept that tickling and laughter are universal, though we may have different levels of tolerance for them.