Being an extremely ticklish person has probably never struck you as a good thing. I know it doesn't particularly appeal to me; grab my neck, sides, or feet the wrong way, and I'll kick you so hard and giggle so much I'll be out of commission for three minutes. Hardly a general benefit, you might think. But scientists have explored this apparently bizarre part of human life, and come up with both a purpose and some real, proven health benefits of tickling. (No, that isn't an excuse to go up to your friends and tickle them mercilessly in the name of "health," because I'm pretty sure you'll get punched.)
Tickling is a part of popular culture: there's an actual published history of tickling, which documents everything from the fisherman's lore that tickling a trout's stomach will put it in a deep trance to the practice of tickle torture, which has been used by everybody from the Han Chinese to the Nazis. Clearly, tickling has a dark side, as with anything that makes us do things against our will — even if it's something as benign as rolling on the floor helpless with laughter. But it turns out that getting yourself tickled may be better for everything from your immune system to your heart health, provided, of course, that it's done by somebody you trust.
The day may soon come when tickling becomes a key part of the practice of wellness, bonding, and general mental wellbeing, and psychologists solemnly declare a tickle prescription on their pads. OK, so maybe that's fanciful thinking — but in the meantime, here are five proven health benefits of tickling and its consequences, to make you feel better the next time a sibling catches you unawares and makes you laugh till you cry.
1. It Strengthens Social Bonds
It turns out that one of the biggest functions of tickling isn't actually a physiological one at all. The involuntary reaction, which we often do to small children and babies, is actually thought to be an ancient way for humans to create and strengthen social bonds. Charles Darwin himself wrote about this back in 1872: he noted that chimpanzee babies also show great delight when tickled, and hypothesized that it may be a way for us to produce humor, particularly in those who aren't old enough to understand jokes yet.
We aren't quite sure whether that's true, but it does seem as if tickling is a method of showing affection and bonding. Psychology Today reports that most adults and teens prefer to be tickled by people of the opposite sex, while children don't care who tickles them, fostering the idea that the practice might actually develop into part of pair-bonding with sexual partners. So if you're feeling distant from your partner, hetero or not, give them a tickle.
2. It Alerts Us To Potential Skin Threats
The sensitivity of the particularly ticklish areas of skin seem to correspond to "threat centers" where it's most likely that the body might encounter possibly threatening external forces, like insects, parasites, or potentially dangerous surfaces.
The soles of the feet, the soft undersides of the armpits and other vulnerable areas are often the most sensitive to touch by others, and it's thought that's part of the body's alarm system. Being strongly ticklish is a sign that your body's aware of possible threats to the skin, and the tendency to leap away and immediately try to escape is likely a very sensible response. After all, we wouldn't have lasted very long if we didn't have some kind of unconscious response to putting our feet on something nasty.
3. Tickling The Feet Can Reduce Incontinence
It turns out that tickling can actually have more direct effects on our continuing health than just keeping us close to our friends and far from our insect enemies. A product produced in 2010 hypothesized that tickling particular nerves in the foot could stimulate the sacral plexus, a nerve that controls much of the activity in the pelvis, thus solving some particularly distressing problems.
The idea was that tickling the foot, where nerve endings for the sacral plexus are located, could help with incontinence by stimulating the nerve, sending impulses along to the bladder and controlling urges to urinate. The findings are still preliminary, but it looks as if tickling this one area could have a life-saving effect for people with bladder difficulties.
4. Laughing (Probably)
Now we're going to focus on the usual consequence of tickling: uncontrollable, often seriously paralyzing laughter. Laughter for the tickled person, alongside creating bonds, may actually be a sign of submission: according to scientists interviewed by Mental Floss, we view ticklers as attackers, and our hysterical response may be our brains trying to make our behaviour as unthreatening as possible, so they'll stop. Darwin didn't believe this — he thought tickling laughter was genuine laughter, the same as prompted by humor — and there's actually a lot of scholarly argument about it.
Laughter when not prompted by tickling has all kinds of health benefits: it boosts immune system function, lowers our stress hormones, and even burns calories. But because the jury's out on whether we really do find tickling funny, or whether we're just reacting instinctively to a stressful situation, we're not sure if these benefits really apply to tickle-laughter. Stay tuned on that one.
5. Tickling The Ears Can Help Your Heart
Tickle stimulation doesn't just help people with bladder problems get better control: if a 2014 study from the University of Leeds holds true, it can also help reduce stress on your heart. But only if you tickle a very particular area: the tragus, the tiny triangular flap at the opening of the ear that some people have pierced.
"Tickling" the tragus using electrical stimulation seems to send signals to the vagus nerve, one of the most important regulatory nerves in the body. It controls and sends communications between many organs, including the heart — and the study found that tickling the nerve via the ear actually makes the heart work better and react more efficiently to changes in its environment. Plus, crucially, it seems that ear-tickling also "calms down" the nervous system that leads to panicky heart-bumping. Tickling the tragus means a better, calmer, more efficient heart.
You probably can't approximate this sort of thing at home yet, because the scientists used a very specific device to hit the right nerve endings — but it's not unrealistic to think that, one day, if you have heart problems, you'll be sent home with a home-tickling machine and strict instructions to be tickled every evening.