Auto-tickling for Dummies

I suppose I’m as ticklish as the next person, so why can’t I tickle myself? Why doesn’t it ever work? Not that I try it a lot, or anything, but it just seems odd. I mean, I can sometimes make myself laugh if I say something funny by accident… Oh, should I not have admitted that…? And yet, no matter how camouflaged I dress, I simply cannot sneak up on myself and tickle.

I used to wonder about that a lot when I was younger: why sometimes tickling was intensely pleasant, but other times -like when my older brother sat on me- it could be torture. Even though I laughed with each, somehow it wasn’t the same. And why laughter? I had my theories, of course -all kids do, I guess. The most sensible one was that I simply wasn’t quick enough to fool my brain. So, at night, after I’d gone to bed and the lights were out (so my brain couldn’t see anything) I used to leave some fingers in my armpit and then, suddenly move them. It should have worked, but the most I ever proved was that it was not a great place to leave fingers for very long.

I tried applying critical thinking to the problem -after we’d practiced it a bit in grade three, I think. The snag, I reasoned, was that I was using things -bodily parts- that were indirectly connected to my brain. Ergo, the bottle brush. The idea came to me after I decided to use a coke bottle as a tadpole aquarium for show-and-tell but discovered I couldn’t clean it out with my fingers. My mother was a great resource, and she showed me how to use the brush to the best effect. She even tickled me as I was trying it out over the sink, so I took that as a good sign.

Anyway, when I tried it that night, it kind of tickled, but not the laugh-out-loud kind -more the need-to-scratch type- and my curiosity about it gradually faded, along with my faith in the grade 3 critical thinking course.

Recently however, during what I can only imagine was a senior’s moment, I was rudely dragged back in time by a question submitted to a Curious Kids Magazine by a Grade fiver, who had presumably never even heard of bottle brushes. And no, I don’t subscribe to the magazine -the article was summarized for the Conversation, an online publication which appears from time to time in my Email box: 

The authors, associate Professor Anina Rich and Professor Mark Williams, both from  Macquarie University in Australia, in turn led me to an even more erudite -if equally fascinating- paper entitled Tickling, written by C. R. Harris from the University of California, San Diego:

Both of them seem to validate my childhood hypothesis that there may be more than one type of tickling out there. The first type, knismesis, is produced by light touch, and usually results in scratching, not manic laughter -bottle brush stuff.

The second, gargalesis -I mean, who makes up these words?- ‘[…] occurs from a heavier touch to “ticklish” parts of the body (like the tummy, underarms and the soles of the feet). This can make us laugh even if we don’t want to. This response also happens in apes.’

My early research was trying to focus on this second variety, I imagine, although I could never have pronounced the word in those days without giggling. And, like when my brother sat on me, ‘[…] lots of people don’t enjoy being tickled and when they laugh and smile they can’t help it. Some scientists think that it could be like when we cry from cutting onions. That type of crying does not show you are sad.’

So, ‘We can’t tickle ourselves. This is because your brain takes your movement and intention into account when responding to the sensation, and this reduces the ticklish nature of the touch. This could mean we use tickling to help us know what our own touch is. Your brain has to deal with a lot of information coming in all the time. When that touch is from another person or thing, this is important to know – it could be a spider crawling on you! The knismesis feather-touch type of tickle might be part of our system for determining when something is touching us. [G]argalesis, the heavy tickle, might help us learn to fight. The laughing from tickling encourages the tickler to keep going while the person being tickled tries to protect the ticklish parts of the body.’

All this is from the children’s journal summary -a bit simplistic at times for me, though. I’m more comfortable with sesquipedalianisms: larger, more puzzling words whose roots I have to Google. I suppose it’s why I don’t subscribe to Curious Kids: I’d never get my money’s worth, even though I might end up knowing more.

Unfortunately, neither article solves the Why to my satisfaction, but I find the language in the article by Dr. Harris more obtuse, and therefore more fulfilling: ‘The data that exist seem most amenable to the view that gargalesis is a relatively automatic, low-level physiological response.’ There, isn’t that better? More to the point? And, in the same incisive language, she goes on to describe the current state of knowledge with pinpoint accuracy: ‘Findings to date have not revealed exactly what mechanism controls the response but likely candidates are that it is a type of complex reflex or fixed action pattern. […] The boundaries between reflexes and other species-typical behavioral dispositions remain controversial. Reflexes are distinguished from fixed action patterns based on their graded character: the more intense the stimulation the more intense the response. It currently is not known whether ticklish laughter shows an all-or-none character like a fixed action pattern or a graded response to the magnitude of stimulation as with the typical reflex.’ Uhmm… Well, maybe it’s a tossup with the Curious Kids information…

As rewarding and erudite as all that may be, I’m no wiser than I was back in my bottle brush days, however. It really makes me wonder about the use of the Human Genome project, if they can’t even figure out the purpose of tickling. My mother knew, of course, even way back then: “You can make somebody feel better if you tickle them on their tummy…” Come to think of it, do we really need to know anything more than that?





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