Why are we ticklish?
Updated: Dec 17, 2022
In my clinical experience I have met hundreds of people who are very sensitive to being touched on certain parts of their bodies. The massage strokes feel to them like they are being tickled and they either tightened their bodies or squirmed with violent reactions to the touch.
In attempting to understand their reaction I have asked these people about their childhood experiences.
Most have told me that they were held down by a bigger and larger sibling or a parent and often they were laughed at and shamed by being told ‘what are you complaining about its only a tickle?’ Others have told me that they received very little nurturing touch and often the main touch was physically being hit.
Theories on tickling
In the book The Nature of Laughter, J. C. Gregory mentions that the first theories on tickling ‘assumed too readily that tickling is always pleasant and necessarily a droll occurrence.’ He also writes ‘The fact that tickling is not necessarily funny is fundamental for understanding its connection with laughter.’
‘If you tickle a child who suspects you, and still more if he actually fears you, he will squirm but he will not laugh. Tie the victim down, bare his soles and tickle them vigorously : “torture annuls amusement.” The squirm of the tickled is a struggle : there is no struggle in laughter.’
Sensitive parts of your body
The parts of our body that are ticklish are sensitive to touch are usually places with significant bloods vessels or an abundance of nerve endings.
Gregory further writes that ‘The distribution of sensitiveness over the body indicates that the tickle is primarily a device to ensure a prompt, vigorous reply to assault. They are the least frequently touched in peace, but they are, significantly, the points of attack in war.’
Tickling among family and friends can be a way for us to learn about physical intimacy and trust as well as a way to learn skills to protect sensitive areas as well as increase dexterity and agile.
‘The tickle, as the violent squirming shows, calls fiercely on the body for action and the friendliness of the attack calls action off. It is essentially a situation of relief and the mingling of laughter with squirming is intelligible. There is a mixture of pain and pleasure in playful tickling of friends.’ writes Gregory.
In The Future of Play Theory, Robert Fagen writes ‘A variety of behavioural signals, including facial expressions, bodily postures and movements, and sounds, some highly idiosyncratic, serve to initiate and maintain play and to communicate information about the immediate well-being of the players.’
‘Many case studies have indicated that siblings often use tickling as an alternative to outright violence when attempting to either punish or intimidate one another. The sibling tickling relationship can occasionally develop into an anti-social situation, or tickle torture, where one sibling will tickle the other without mercy. The motivation behind tickle torture is often to portray the sense of domination the tickler has over the victim.’
Non-consensual tickling has been used as a form of torture. Heinz Heger, a man imprisoned in the Flossenburg concentration camp during World War II, witnessed and documented Nazi prison guards perform tickle torture on a fellow inmate. The British Medical Journal has described European methods of tickle torture. In ancient Japan, authorities administer punishments to those convicted of crimes that were beyond the criminal code that included kusuguri-zeme: ‘merciless tickling.’
The significance of tickling
Why have we missed the significance of tickling and why do we not see the folly in holding someone down and tickling them? Gregory writes ‘The violent squirm that responds to tickling at these points in a sensitive subject is too amusing to permit, or invite, appreciation of its significance.’
The website Heathline writes ‘It’s important to have boundaries. Don’t force people to endure tickling, even if they’re laughing. This especially applies to children.’
Respectful and safe touch
I have found that through educating people about the significance of the tickle response and by massaging them with sensitive and respectful touch people can learn to trust themselves. This self trust allows them to regain the ability to trust others and know when they are safe and being respected thus they are able to enjoy being touched.