Tickling Pleasure Or Pain?

Tickling May Cause Lifelong Trust Issues

Now and then as a massage therapist, I come across a client who is unable to relax. In some cases, I have found it’s because of past experience with overzealous tickling.

Touch such as reassuring caresses squeezes and hugs exchanged between human beings generate powerful physical and emotional responses. Euphoria, relaxation, and congeniality evolve from something as elementary as one person’s hand holding another’s. Conversely, however, a touch can be menacing or threatening. An objectionable touch from a stranger can lead to feelings of exploitation and anger in the person who’s been touched inappropriately.

Vernon R. Wiehe from the University of Kentucky studied a group of adults who were abused by their siblings during childhood. Many of the study subjects reported they considered tickling as a type of physical abuse. The study concluded that tickling could prompt adverse physiological reactions in the victim such as vomiting and fainting due to the inability to breathe.

According to Wiehe, tickling against someone’s wish may actually cause psychological pain that can span a lifetime. Tickling during childhood is a common cause of negative emotional issues in adults. The trauma can lead to a situation where the person affected can become extremely tense in the presence of other people. Victims feel insecure even while sleeping close to a trusted partner, and are perpetually on their guard any time there’s more than casual touching between them and significant others.

Physiology Of The Laughter Response?

There are millions of tiny nerve endings beneath your skin that alert the brain to pain, temperature and pressure. It’s this sense that prevents us from burning our hand on a hot kettle or realise we should wrap up warm with another layer of clothing when it’s freezing outside.

Tickling can be an unpleasant experience and still make us laugh because the non-myelinated nerve fibres that cause pain are being stimulated. As a rule, the reason tickling your self doesn’t work is because of the mechanics involved and there has to be an element of surprise involved. The two areas of the brain that respond are the somatosensory cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. The soles of the feet and the underarms are two of the most common ticklish places on the body. The feet have a high concentration of Meissner’s corpuscles, which are highly sensitive nerve receptors located close to the skin’s surface.

Whenever you try to tickle yourself, your movements are monitored by your cerebellum and recognises that this action is self-inflicted, and thus the tickle response is prevented from being initiated. Tickling activates the hypothalamus, which indicates that our response to tickling may be a primal defence mechanism to prompt submissiveness in the face of a superior enemy. This is the area of the brain that triggers the primitive fright or flight response. In the main, there are two categories of tickling, both of which are regarded by the neurological system as unpleasant sensations:-

Knismesis – is a light irritation of a sensitive area, usually by touch, for instance by a mild electric current, a crawling insect or a hair flicking your skin.

Gargalesis – is the more intense type of tickling that initiates fits of laughter delivered by someone applying heavier pressure to sensitive areas of your body.

Gargalesis is especially difficult to trigger in oneself, as well as being more unpleasant than Knismesis, and therefore produces a dynamic response. A recent study at the University of Tuebingen in Germany used an MRI to test subjects’ response to both listening to being told jokes and also to being tickled. The temporal lobes of the subjects were highly stimulated when they laughed. However, in the tickling part of the experiment, there was a strong reaction from the hypothalamus.

Tickling Kids Harmless Fun Or A Form Of Oppression

A typical family game of tickling usually begins with a parent, friend or relative chasing their children around the house, tackling them, and then tickling them until they scream out. It’s a traditional game you might say, and in the right context can bring people closer together. However, it should not be assumed that everyone involved in tickling is sharing a pleasant experience, and the person tickling should pay close attention to the child’s cues. Parents should ask permission, and respect children’s boundaries.

Humorous laughter and ticklish laughter share some similarities but are not really the same psychological experience. The experience of tickling can be enjoyed based on the environment and the relationship between the person being tickled, and the tickler.

Tickling Is A Way To Claim Dominance

Children who aren’t enjoying being tickled may be laughing, even to the point, they are struggling to breathe properly. These are sensorial reactions that may not correspond with the emotional experience. This is why it is important for parents to be watching for subtle cues from their children. Some children may summon you to stop or pull away, but others might not be so obvious. Wincing at your touch or hesitating between laughs are signs of more subtle cues that they’re not willing participants.

A report by Dr. Richard Alexander, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, claims the laughing triggered by tickling can very well be a personification of dominance, and that which follows is an ontogenetic manifestation of submissiveness. The inability to gain control cannot only be humiliating but can leave unpleasant memories for a lifetime.

As parents, it’s easy to assume we don’t need permission to impose ourselves into a child’s personal space. This mind-set sends mixed messages to our children. Parents need to consider how their actions align with their lessons about boundaries to their kids.

It’s important that young children are taught about social cues, what is acceptable, and how to react to social messages from those around them. Children will learn more from their emotional experiences than the words their parents say. Pushing, tickling, or hugging resistant children only sends the message that they can’t trust their own instincts. It communicates to children that they can’t trust themselves to decide what they do and don’t feel comfortable with.

If a child really isn’t comfortable with something, and the parent continues this action, then they are sending the message that it’s okay. This is confusing for the child who can’t differentiate between parents who don’t respect their boundaries and a family member or stranger who coerces them into doing something they’re not comfortable with. It’s a parents responsibility to teach their children to take charge of their body and empower themselves.




  • “Nervous system layer.” Accessed June 3, 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/body/factfiles/touch/touch.shtml
  • Blackmore, Sarah-Jayne. “Why can’t a person tickle himself?” Scientific American. August 4, 2003.http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-cant-a-person-tickle
  • Mintz, Thomas MD. “Tickle – the itch that moves.” Psychosomatic Medicine. 1967. http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/cgi/reprint/29/6/606.pdf
  • Provine, Robert R. “Laughing, tickling, and the evolution of speech and self.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2004. http://www.chsbs.cmich.edu/hajime_otani/Classes/100/Extra1.pdf
  • Queen’s University. “The science of tickling.” January 19, 2006. http://www.physorg.com/news10056.html
  • Tierney, John. “What’s so funny? Well, maybe nothing.” New York Times. March 13, 2007.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/13/science/13tier.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1
  • Uhlig, Robert and Derbyshire, David. “Proof that you can’t fool your brain with a tickle.” Telegraph. September 11, 2000. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1354950/Proof-that-you-cant-fool-your-brain-with-a-tickle.html
  • Yoon, Carol Kaesuk. “Anatomy of a tickle is serious business at the research lab.” New York Times. June 3, 1997.http://www.nytimes.com/1997/06/03/science/anatomy-of-a-tickle-is-serious-business-at-the-research-lab.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all

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