Tickling is the act of touching a part of the body so as to cause involuntary twitching movements and/or laughter. The word “tickle” evolved from the Middle English tikelen, perhaps frequentative of ticken, to touch lightly. The idiom tickled pink means to be pleased or delighted.
In 1897, psychologists G. Stanley Hall and Arthur Allin described a “tickle” as two different types of phenomena. One type caused by very light movement across the skin. This type of tickle, called a knismesis, generally does not produce laughter and is sometimes accompanied by an itching sensation.
Another type of tickle is the laughter inducing, “heavy” tickle, produced by repeatedly applying pressure to “ticklish” areas, and is known as gargalesis. Such sensations can be pleasurable or exciting, but are sometimes considered highly unpleasant, particularly in the case of relentless heavy tickling.
Purpose of Tickling
Some of history’s greatest thinkers have pondered the mysteries of the tickle response, including Plato, Francis Bacon, Galileo and Charles Darwin. In The Assayer, Galileo philosophically examines tickling in the context of how we perceive reality
When touched upon the soles of the feet, for example, it feels in addition to the common sensation of touch a sensation on which we have imposed a special name, “tickling.” This sensation belongs to us and not to the hand… A piece of paper or a feather drawn lightly over any part of our bodies performs intrinsically the same operations of moving and touching, but by touching the eye, the nose, or the upper lip it excites in us an almost intolerable titillation, even though elsewhere it is scarcely felt. This titillation belongs entirely to us and not to the feather; if the live and sensitive body were removed it would remain no more than a mere word.
One hypothesis, as mentioned above, is that tickling serves as a pleasant bonding experience between parent and child. However, this hypothesis does not adequately explain why many children and adults find tickling to be an unpleasant experience. Another view maintained is that tickling develops as a prenatal response and that the development of sensitive areas on the fetus helps to orient the fetus into favourable positions while in the womb.
It is unknown why certain people find areas of the body to be more ticklish than others; additionally, studies have shown that there is no significant difference in ticklishness between the genders. In 1924, J.C. Gregory proposed that the most ticklish places on the body were also those areas that were the most vulnerable during hand-to-hand combat. He posited that ticklishness might confer an evolutionary advantage by enticing the individual to protect these areas. Consistent with this idea, University of Iowa psychiatrist Donald W. Black observed that most ticklish spots are found in the same places as the protective reflexes.
A third, hybrid hypothesis, has suggested that tickling encourages the development of combat skills. Most tickling is done by parents, siblings and friends and is often a type of rough-and-tumble play, during which time children often develop valuable defensive and combat moves. Although people generally make movements to get away from, and report disliking, being tickled, laughter encourages the tickler to continue. If the facial expressions induced by tickle were less pleasant the tickler would be less likely to continue, thus diminishing the frequency of these valuable combat lessons.
To understand how much of the tickle response is dependent on the interpersonal relationship of the parties involved, Christenfeld and Harris presented subjects with a “mechanical tickle machine”. They found that the subjects laughed just as much when they believed they were being tickled by a machine as when they thought they were being tickled by a person Harris goes on to suggest that the tickle response is reflex, similar to the startle reflex, that is contingent upon the element of surprise.
Chinese tickle torture is a term used in Western Society to describe an ancient form of torture practiced by the Chinese, in particular the courts of the Han Dynasty. Chinese tickle torture was a punishment for nobility since it left no marks and a victim could recover relatively easily and quickly.
Another example of tickle torture was used in Ancient Rome, where a person’s feet were dipped in a salt solution, and a goat was brought in to lick the solution off. This type of tickle torture would only start as tickling, eventually becoming extremely painful.
Heinz Heger, a homosexual man persecuted in a the Flossenburg concentration camp during World War II, witnessed Nazi prison guards perform tickle torture on a fellow inmate, followed by various other tortures which resulted in his death. He describes this incident in his book The Men With The Pink Triangle: “The first game that the SS sergeant and his men played was to tickle their victim with goose feathers, on the soles of his feet, between his legs, in the armpits, and on other parts of his naked body. At first the prisoner forced himself to keep silent, while his eyes twitched in fear and torment from one SS man to the other. Then he could not restrain himself and finally he broke out in a high-pitched laughter that very soon turned into a cry of pain, while the tears ran down his face, and his body twisted against his chains. After this tickling torture, they let the lad hang there for a little, while a flood of tears ran down his cheeks and he cried and sobbed uncontrollably.”
An article in the British Medical Journal about European tortures describes a method of tickle torture in which a goat was compelled to lick the victim’s feet because they had been dipped in salt water. Once the goat had licked the salt off, the victim’s feet would be dipped in the salt water again and the process would repeat itself. In ancient Japan, those in positions of authority could administer punishments to those convicted of crimes that were beyond the criminal code. This was called shikei, which translates as ‘private punishment.’ One such torture was kusuguri-zeme: “merciless tickling.”
In his groundbreaking book Sibling Abuse, Vernon Wiehe published his research findings regarding 150 adults who were abused by their siblings during childhood. Several reported tickling as a type of physical abuse they experienced, and based on these reports it was revealed that abusive tickling is capable of provoking extreme physiological reactions in the victim, such as vomiting and losing consciousness
There are a small number of documented instances of tickle torture in The New York Times. They happened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in these instances restrained victims were tickled upon the bare soles of their feet, apparently against their will and for the pleasure of their tormentors
There is currently no evidence that tickle torture was ever widespread or was practiced by governments. The very small amount of related documentation discovered thus far originates from England and the United States.
A 1903 article described an immobilized suicidal patient at the Hudson River State Hospital who was tied to a bed for his own safety. While he lay helpless, the patient’s toes were tickled by one of the hospital attendants, Frank A. Sanders. “Sanders is said to have confessed that while intoxicated he amused himself by tickling the feet and ribs of Hayes and pulling his nose.” Sanders also gave his restrained victim a black eye. Another hospital employee came upon Sanders while he was entertaining himself at his patient’s expense, and the criminal was brought before a grand jury
An 1887 article entitled “England in Old Times” states “Gone, too, are the parish stocks, in which female offenders against public morality formerly sat imprisoned, with their legs held fast beneath a heavy wooden yoke, while sundry small but fiendish boys improved the occasion by deliberately pulling off their shoes and tickling the soles of the women’s defenseless feet.”
In 1872, the beating of a man’s bare feet was described in an article entitled “Terrible Punishments: The Russian Knout and Turkish Bastinado: How the Punishments are Inflicted.” The author, while explaining the intense pain caused by whipping, writes “I have heard men cry out in agony…but I never heard such heart-rending sounds as those from the poor bastinadoed wretch before me. Such is the bastinado. And of the intensiveness of the agony which its infliction produces, one has only to think of the congeries or plexus of delicate nerves which have their terminus in the feet. Even tickling the soles of the feet has often produced death; what then must be the excruciating pain when cruel violence is done to those most sensitive members?”
Historical Deaths Attributed to Laughter
• In the third century B.C., the Greek stoic philosopher Chrysippus died of laughter after giving his donkey wine, then seeing it attempt to feed on figs.
• King Martin of Aragon died from a combination of indigestion and uncontrollable laughter in 1410
• Pietro Aretino, who died in 1580, “is said to have died of suffocation from laughing too much.
• In 1660, the Scottish aristocrat, polymath and first translator of Rabelais into English Thomas Urquhart, is said to have died laughing upon hearing that Charles II had taken the throne.
Modern deaths attributed to laughter
• On 24 March 1975, Alex Mitchell, a 50-year-old bricklayer from King’s Lynn, England, died laughing while watching the “Kung Fu Kapers” episode of The Goodies, featuring a kilt-clad Scotsman battling a vicious black pudding with his bagpipes. After twenty-five minutes of continuous laughter, Mitchell finally slumped on the sofa and died from heart failure. His widow later sent The Goodies a letter thanking them for making Mitchell’s final moments of life so pleasant.
• In 1989, a Danish audiologist, Ole Bentzen, died laughing while watching A Fish Called Wanda. His heart was estimated to have beaten at between 250 and 500 beats per minute, before he succumbed to cardiac arrest.
• In 2003, Damnoen Saen-um, a Thai ice cream salesman, is reported to have died while laughing in his sleep at the age of 52. His wife was unable to wake him, and he stopped breathing after two minutes of continuous laughter. He is believed to have died of either heart failure or asphyxiation.