Body processes

Tickle – Function, Task & Diseases


When a person is tickled, their nervous system responds to that tickle with body reflexes such as laughter . Today, scientists primarily explain this mechanism using the so-called relief theory. When pathological tickle attacks occur, there is usually a sensory disorder .

What is the tickle?

Light touches can trigger a reflex in the form of involuntary laughter or screaming. This reflex provocation is also called a tickle. Scientists distinguish knismesis and gargelesis in this context. The first phenomenon is a gentle provocation through light touches. Gargelesis, on the other hand, means the provocation of an almost painful tickle attack. Light to heavy pressure is applied to sensitive areas of the body.

Within the human community, tickling is a form of social interaction. In the vast majority of cases, people only react to the tickle when someone else tickles them.

The word tickle is a popular compound part in the German language. For example, the German speaks of thrill when something excites him enormously. In the case of a thrill, the person concerned moves between fear and joy in this fear, just as in the case of a tickle attack he probably moves between fear of an unexpected threat and pleasure.

Function & task

The origin of tickle reflexes is still controversial. Doctors like Leuba describe the reflexes as purely protective reflexes. The body reacts with such protective reflexes to external stimuli that could be dangerous to humans.

For example, the mechanoreceptors on human skin respond to touch. On some skin areas, such as under the armpits, on the neck or on the feet , gentle touches are rarely or not at all used in everyday life. In these areas in particular, the touch receptors react violently to the tickle, as they are not used to this type of touch from everyday life.

Pressure receptors in particular are activated when tickled. As a result, they send out action potentials to the cerebellum , the anterior cingulate cortex, and the somatosensory cortex. The anterior cingulate cortex is responsible for processing pleasurable information. The somatosensory cortex, in turn, processes all touch information.

In the course of stimulus transmission, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, which regulates feelings of happiness in particular. The tickling feeling is created in the brain instead of on the skin . At the end of the chain, the brain responds to the action potentials of the skin’s sensory cells by initiating a weakening body reflex. In this context, laughter may be an embarrassing gesture intended to soothe the tickler. This theory is supported by the observation that people can tickle themselves only in very rare cases and in very few places.

Other scientists assume a relief effect. Darwin’s theory of tickling already supported this assumption. The unexpected contact would be tantamount to a great shock, since the brain does not know how to assess it at first. As soon as it turns out to be harmless, the relief effect and, in connection with it, the laughter reflex kick in.

In studies, scientists used magnetic resonance imaging to observe the brain activities of those who were tickled and, on the basis of the observation results, advocated the relief theory.

On the other hand, prolonged tickling can also be perceived as torture. In the Middle Ages, the feet of various people were tickled in the pillory as part of a torture technique.

Some people also incorporate tickling into their sex life. The aim of these practices is then usually to break down inhibitions in the partner being tickled or simply to enjoy laughing together through close touching.

Diseases & Ailments

In extreme cases, tickle attacks can cause symptoms. Lung and muscle pains in particular sometimes occur as a result of convulsive fits of laughter. In extreme cases, convulsions and suffocation can also occur. Sometimes victims of extreme tickle attacks complain about muscle soreness-like symptoms the day after.

If tickle attacks occur independently of tickle attacks, then various diseases can be responsible. In particular, tickle attacks caused by irritated mechanoreceptors in the nose can occur in the course of persistent colds or, even more frequently, in the context of hay fever and other allergies .

On the skin, irritations such as those caused by certain items of clothing or detergent are sometimes responsible for tickling feelings. However, the laughing reflex usually does not occur and those affected would, under certain circumstances, rather speak of itching .

The tickling sensation can be prevented in the context of damage to the central nervous system . Damaged mechanoreceptors then no longer report touch stimuli, for example, and tickle attacks can no longer be triggered.

In the case of damage to the brain or the stimulus pathways, the tickle stimulus can sometimes no longer pass into consciousness or only slowly . In such a case, there may be a sensory disorder. These symptoms can be due to mental illnesses. But they can also be associated with diseases of the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis .

Hypersensitive mechanoreceptors can also be pathological. For example, tickling could be perceived as severe pain. In this context, the mere air on the skin may also tickle. In this context, too, there is talk of a sensory disorder.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.