Here’s Why You’re So Ticklish (2024)

If you stop and think about it, being tickled is kind of weird, right? It’s not necessarily pleasant, but you can’t seem to stop laughing either.

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What’s going on there?!

Your body’s tickle response is surprisingly complex and somewhat mysterious, says family medicine physician Neha Vyas, MD, though a few researchers have attempted to understand it. She explains the science behind ticklishness, including the two different types of tickling and what your brain thinks is happening when you’re being tickled.

Why are we ticklish?

Being tickled stimulates activity in a small area of your brain called the hypothalamus, which sits directly above the brainstem at the base of your brain. Though it’s only about the size of an almond, your hypothalamus has a big role to play: It’s in charge of emotions and your body’s reaction to danger and stressful situations, known as the fight-or-flight response.

“Your hypothalamus controls that adrenaline rush you get when something abrupt, exciting or challenging happens to you,” Dr. Vyas explains, “so it’s geared toward protecting you.”

Your hypothalamus goes on high alert when it thinks you’re in danger or facing some sort of threat, which may explain why tickling tender places tends to trigger the strongest reactions. It may also explain why you can’t really tickle yourself: Your brain doesn’t register your own hands as an external threat!

Why laughter, though? It certainly seems like a strange response to a perceived threat. Researchers aren’t sure why our bodies produce this particular response (though they continue to study it). But it turns out we’re not the only ones.

“Animals in the gorilla family seem to have some of the same typical responses to tickling that we do,” Dr. Vyas notes.

Common ticklish spots

The most ticklish spots tend to be those that are also the most sensitive, like your:

  • Feet.
  • Neck.
  • Ribcage.
  • Stomach.
  • Underarms.

Plus, not all tickling is created equal. There are actually two different types of tickling, and they even have scientific names:

  • Gargalesis, or heavy tickling, is the sort of standard, hands-on tickling that makes you laugh and squirm. Some people find this tickling uncomfortable or painful, even if they respond with laughter.
  • Knismesis is light tickling, like with a feather or a soft touch, and depending on your level of sensitivity, it may feel itchy, irritating or even pleasurable. Think about that feeling you get when a stray hair touches your skin or a bug lands on you. It might cause you to exclaim, “Oh, that tickles!” but it doesn’t elicit laughter like hands-on tickling does.

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Is everyone ticklish?

No, not everyone is ticklish. The tickle response varies from person to person. Some people are so ticklish that the sight of approaching wiggly fingers can set them squirming. But others barely react.

Factors that affect your degree of ticklishness include:

  • Skin sensitivity: Some people have more sensitive skin than others, which makes them more ticklish.
  • Mood: Dr. Vyas says that anxiety can make you more ticklish, while emotions like anger may make you less receptive and responsive to tickling.
  • Medical conditions: Any condition that affects your nerves may impact your tickle response. “People with neuropathy, whose nerve endings don’t work well, may not feel much sensation in certain areas of the body. This reduces their ticklishness,” Dr. Vyas explains, “although in some rare cases, neuropathy can actually make people more ticklish.”

Are kids more ticklish than adults?

Yes, kids are typically more ticklish than adults, but there’s no solid research to explain why. Dr. Vyas says that as you age, your reduction in ticklishness may be due to changes in nerve function and sensitivity.

It could also be that children often see tickling as a fun, playful interaction, while adults find it to be more invasive and less enjoyable. (As a reminder, everyone, including children, has the right to bodily autonomy. Don’t tickle anyone who doesn’t consent to being tickled!)

Tickle torture is real

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “tickle torture,” you might think it’s just a cute way to describe a tickle session. But it’s a real thing. Extreme, nonstop tickling can lead to hypoxia, which means not enough oxygen is getting to your brain.

“Tickling has, in fact, been used as a torture device,” Dr. Vyas confirms, “and people have actually been tickled to death.”

Even when tickling isn’t quite so barbaric, many people don’t find it enjoyable. This may have to do with how your nerves perceive the sensation of tickling. Scientists discovered that tickling stimulates the nerves that signal pain. That pain signal, combined with triggering your fight-or-flight response, can make tickling downright uncomfortable.

But, again, what about the laughter? Research suggests that it may be a reflex, not a sign of enjoyment.

“Tickling is not necessarily fun for everyone,” Dr. Vyas reinforces. “In some people, being tickled can even lead to panic attacks.”

So, don’t let laughter fool you into thinking tickling is a happy experience for the tickle recipient. Always be sure to be gentle, respect their boundaries and stop to let them catch their breath.

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Here’s Why You’re So Ticklish (2024)

FAQs

Why am I so insanely ticklish? ›

Factors that affect your degree of ticklishness include: Skin sensitivity: Some people have more sensitive skin than others, which makes them more ticklish. Mood: Dr. Vyas says that anxiety can make you more ticklish, while emotions like anger may make you less receptive and responsive to tickling.

What is it called when someone is extremely ticklish? ›

Hypergargalesthesia is the condition of extreme sensitivity to tickling. The words knismesis and gargalesis were both used by Susie Dent in an episode of the BBC game show, Would I Lie to You? (Season 11, episode 4).

Why do people find tickling arousing? ›

The main source of arousal was visually observing the ticklee's body reactions (91.2%), followed by the sound of the ticklee's voice (85.8%) and the sense of power gained through tickling (85.8%). Tactile stimulation was also reported as an arousal source by 69.1% of participants.

What does it mean when someone is ticklish? ›

The word ticklish means both "sensitive to being tickled" and "requiring tact or careful handling." A lot of people avoid ticklish subjects when they meet someone new, instead sticking to safe topics like the weather. You know you're ticklish if you squirm and giggle when your friend tickles your feet.

Is ticklish mental or physical? ›

Scientists found being tickled stimulates your hypothalamus, the area of the brain in charge of your emotional reactions, and your fight or flight and pain responses. When you're tickled, you may be laughing not because you're having fun, but because you're having an autonomic emotional response.

Can too much tickling be bad? ›

Depending on its intensity and duration, tickling can, in fact, lead to death from asphyxia, brain aneurysms, or other stress-related injuries, as people are unable to regulate their breathing under the stress of tickling. In essence, what is 'fun and games' for one, may cause panic attacks for another.

What is the most ticklish spot on the body? ›

While the palm of the hand is far more sensitive to touch, most people find that the soles of their feet are the most ticklish. Other commonly ticklish areas include the belly, sides of the torso, underarms, ribs, midriff, neck, back of the knee, thighs, buttocks, nose, feet and perineum.

Is tickling healthy in a relationship? ›

Tickling also establishes a romantic relationship between you and your partner. It makes people feel wanted and loved. To make the experience pleasurable, tickling must be gentle rather than rough or forceful. Acts as a defense mechanism: Tickling immediately draws your attention towards the site of the tickle.

Is tickling a form of love? ›

Tickling—Some individuals may not like to be tickled, but tickling is a physical expression of love.

Is tickling a form of pleasure? ›

A quarter of respondents reported experiencing org*sms exclusively from tickling, while around 88% expressed sexual satisfaction through tickling alone, indicating its sufficiency as a sexual stimulus among fetishists.

Is it healthy to be ticklish? ›

Ticklishness protects vulnerable areas.

The feeling that comes from light-touch tickling may be another type of protective reaction, as it makes you want to rub the area. So, if you feel a bug crawling on you, the impulse from its light-touch tickling is to brush it off and thus stop it from causing any harm.

Is tickling a form of assault? ›

Anything that violates your bodily autonomy (or the control you have over your body and its functions) is abuse. So if someone holds you down and touches you in any way, even if it's playful, without your consent, that's abuse and a violation of your bodily autonomy. Being tickled without your consent falls under this.

How do I stop being super ticklish? ›

Relax the muscles that are being tickled.

Some people find that relaxing their ticklish areas can help the sensation feel less severe, as long as it's done before the tickling starts. Strategies like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation are all great ways to unwind and relax.

Can you lose the ability to be ticklish? ›

Further studies have discovered that when the pain nerves are severed by surgeons, in an effort to reduce intractable pain, the tickle response is also diminished. However, in some patients that have lost pain sensation due to spinal cord injury, some aspects of the tickle response do remain.

What is the most ticklish spot on the human body? ›

People may be ticklish in spots that commonly produces a tickle reflex to varying degrees -- or not at all. Others may be ticklish in places where most other people aren't. The soles of the feet and the underarms are two of the most common ticklish places on the body.

Is being ticklish a problem? ›

Good news: It's all normal. “As with any sensory experience, people have different levels of sensitivity to touch and tickle,” says Alicia Walf, PhD, a senior lecturer in cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

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