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How tickling can go from flirting to hurting - (9/6/2022)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro 

Edna was the new pharmacy technician. She was efficient and good with the patients. Yet, she was also playful. You never knew what Edna was going to do. The other day, she came up behind the pharmacist and stuck both index fingers into his sides, just below his ribs. The pharmacist yowled with a colossal guffaw, and the pills he was counting went flying. "Edna," he said. "I am ticklish, but this is not the time. If those pills were narcotics, that would be a big problem if I lost any." Tickling has its time and place. Part of its appeal – more so for the tickler rather than the victim – is the element of surprise. Nothing is funnier than watching someone respond to a tickle that causes one to blow milk out of one's nose or swerve into a police car. Hilarious, right, officer? 

What happens when someone tickles us? The nerve endings in the skin transmit messages to the brain, specifically the cerebellum in the hindbrain. That noggin part dictates us feeling cold or hot, fear or pleasure, coordinated or clumsy. The cerebellum alerts one to the touch of another and, in many ways, is a defense mechanism. Thus, one automatically protects the delicate parts of the body – under the rib cage, armpits, the soles of the feet, and around the throat. Notice that your body scrunches into a fetal position when someone tickles you. Even though you are laughing until you cannot breathe, you are guarding those sensitive areas from harm. 

Some people cannot bear tickling. Researchers note that the old "koochie koochie koo" stimulates the hypothalamus, the brain part that controls your emotional responses. People in tickle mode usually laugh uncontrollably. However, the laughter does not come from having fun but from having an autonomic emotional response – the fight-or-flight response when someone physically attacks us. Scientists report that the movements of someone under the charge of a tickler mimic those of someone in severe pain. And that's where tickling becomes torment. 

Anyone with a torture chamber in their basement knows tickling can be a sexual fetish. As in, "Please, sir, may I have another?" This can be fun for the tickle top – the person who gets off tickling, and the tickle bottom - the one tied up and blindfolded. The object is to get the bottom to laugh uncontrollably, cry, scream, urinate, ejaculate, and faint from heavy-duty titillation. Then, everyone goes home happy. But unhappily, adversaries can use tickling to get their victim to "spill the beans," especially if he or she is a spy from the other side. Sadists have used tickling as torture for millennia, from the Han Dynasty in China, circa 200 BCE, to the Nazi concentration camps of World War 2. In Ancient Rome, persecutors would dip a person's feet into a saline solution and then trot in a goat to lick the salty slop off the person's feet. Fun at first. Fatal in the end.

While torture tickling does not seem as bad as waterboarding, the subject's body, nevertheless, plunges into a panic state. If the person continues to laugh non-stop, oxygen will not be able to enter the lungs. Then, the person will either suffocate or choke on his own vomit. Do not try this at home (unless you must). Other stress-related injuries include seizures and brain aneurysms, a burst blood vessel that can lead to a fatal stroke. This would make one long for the swiftness of the razor-sharp guillotine blade.     

Tickling tidbits: Men are more ticklish than women, although men try to put up a stoical front. Moms tickle babies as a means of enjoyable bonding. Tickling someone against their will is assault and battery. From mild to wild. From sexy to complex-y. Tickling can be fun and healthy (or not). Now, whenever Edna passes by the pharmacist, he involuntarily guards his body in case her bony fingers become naughty. Because you never know what Edna is going to do. And that's kind of fun. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.

The content contained in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.

 


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