I don’t know how I feel about tickling, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s usually horrible, but in a sort of gleeful way, kind of like a roller coaster ride. It sounds bad and doesn’t always leave the best memory, but it’s usually a good thrilling rush while it’s happening. I’ve always thought of it as an experience that requires a certain mood, and a new study published in Science magazine last week confirms that.
This study focused on rats and the “tickle center” in their brains. A neuroscientist at the Humboldt University in Berlin has been training rats to be tickled, which is a pretty adorable thought in and of itself. When tickled, the rats giggle at an inaudible pitch — a tiny, squeaky little rat laugh. Again, adorable. They also learned to love being tickled. The rats would return to the spot where they were tickled, craving the sensation. I can’t get over how cute that is.
The researchers discovered that tickling triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with rewards and pleasure in the brain. With the help of a small electrical current to that area of the brain, the researchers determined that stimulation there recreated the tickling sensation. This could be a helpful discovery for future studies on laughing and other positive emotions.
The results of the study suggest that being tickled is a learned enjoyment, as the rats learned to return for more. People (and rats) need to be tickled when they are young in order to enjoy it later in life.
But it has to happen in the right situation. In another part of the study, the researchers increased the rats’ anxiety. In those cases, the happy sensation from tickling was suppressed. Just like humans, rats require a certain mood to enjoy being tickled.
Of course, I’m always in that mood when I’m getting a pedicure. Without fail, I giggle uncontrollably when the nail technician starts to scrub the bottom of my feet. I always try to warn the person, but I usually end up flailing and sometimes kicking — and always getting laughed at — while continuing to laugh at myself. It’s hilarious but so embarrassing. So I guess, despite the embarrassment, I’ve learned to accept tickling as a good thing, and I’m always in a good mood when I’m at the nail salon. Can’t disagree with that.
Do you enjoy being tickled? —Megan