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The psychology of tickling


Some interesting facts.

        Not a lot of scientific study has been done on tickling, compared to other sensations like pain, itching etc. However even as far back as the 19th century, Charles Darwin was asking questions about tickling. Today, there is one researcher in particular, Christine R. Harris of the University of California, who has done several studies on various aspects of tickling.

        Does being ticklish depend on an interaction with another person?

        Arguably, no. In a study titled "Can a machine tickle?" Christine R. Harris and another researcher blindfolded students and told them they would be tickled on their foot once by a machine, and once by a researcher. They were asked to rate how much each tickled. Overall, the average scores were very similar - some even said the machine tickled more! (in both cases it was actually a hidden assistant doing the tickling!) - "Can a machine tickle?" Harris & Christenfeld, 1999

        Why can't you tickle yourself?

        Well firstly, some people can. But most of us can't - and it may be because tickling served an evolutionary purpose. One theory is that being ticklish allerted our ancestors to spiders etc crawling over their bodies. When we try to tickle ourselves, our brain is aware that we are being touched, but also that we are doing it ourselves, and so it doesn't react the same way, allowing us to ignore our own touching but still know when we're about to be bitten! The majority of research supports this general idea - but no-one has researched why some people are just as ticklish when tickling themselves.  - "Preliminary observations on tickling oneself" Fridlund & Loftis 1990

        Why are some people more ticklish on one side of their body?

        Nobody knows - but you're not imagining it. We know it doesn't depend on gender, or which side they use more. One theory is that the left side of the brain is involved more in positive emotions. If you consider being tickled a positive experience, it might explain why one study found that in general, people are more ticklish on their right foot (the study only measured ticklishness on feet). But there hasn't been a study done to test this hypothesis. - "Right-sided asymmetry in sensitivity to tickle" Smith & Cahusac, 2001

        Are women more ticklish than men?

        Not measurably! When reading several research papers to write up this section of the site, I noticed that none of the experiments picked up a significant difference between the genders. Which begs the question - why do women usually seemmore ticklish? None of the experiments were actually testing which gender was more ticklish, but got data on it anyway through tickling both sexes. It's a mystery to be solved by the next great tickling researcher! - "Humour, Tickle, and the Darwin-Hecker Hypothesis" Harris & Christenfeld, 1997, "Right-sided asymmetry in sensitivity to tickle" Smith & Cahusac, 2001