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You are probably surprised when you see the jungle king laughing. Wait! Is that real? Yes it is. How can a lion laugh when tickled? Some of us have a rigid mindset that only humans can laugh. When I told my buddy that I have an article on tickling, she giggled and paused. “May I see it”? She asked, astounded. Let me now bring a scholarly squabble on this.

Laughter is physiologically spasmodic, rhythmic, vocalized, expiratory, and (when due to tickling) involuntary. That is according to Stearns (1972). He refers to the neural pathway of tickle-laughter arch. I do not want to bore you with magnanimous medical terms, so let me be brief and clear. Stearns says that tickling is as a result of simultaneous excitation of both sensation of touch and pain. Pain is a violation of physical integrity and comfort. It represents V, a violation of a moral principal. Touch sensations, on the other hand, provide an internal representation of the external, touched stimulus for the organism to process. This representation of the stimulus is painless by itself; it is a representation of a normal contact with a stimulus, N.

The fact that tickling requires a sensation of pain as well as a “normal” touch sensation, is a remarkable piece of evidence that appears to support the present theory of humor. The physiology of tickling is actually a restatement at the physiological level of the present theory of humor. Indeed, this suggests that physical tickling and more cerebral and cognitive forms of humor may have the same basic representation in the human nervous system, and that biological implementations of the two may at least be evolutionarily related.

Now let’s look at this.

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This guy is laughing, but he hasn’t been tickled. Have you ever experienced this? When you see some hands approach your neck of armpits, you suddenly begin to laugh. How can this be explained? Those who had a mind that tickling is physiological should pause and rethink until they fathom the whole concept.

It should be pointed out in making this comparison that the tickle response is not a purely physiological reflex response. While tickling of the type, “research scientist applies feather to plantar surface of foot”, may be thought to be purely physiological, there are kinds of tickling which clearly involve other mechanisms. Some people, for example, may be tickled without actually being touched. Such cases appear to involve a perceived attack in combination with a perceived lack of a real threat. Also, some people are simply “not ticklish”. Finally, one of the most robust and mysterious facts about ticklishness is that people usually cannot tickle themselves, but rather can only be tickled by some other agent. It would seem that the tickle response is not an innate physiological reflex, but involves something else that is possibly learnable, presumably cognitive. I suggest that this something is the judgement that one is being physically attacked in some way: a perceived fake attack. A perceived attack is obviously a violation of physical integrity and corresponds to a V interpretation. The falsity of the attack allows for a predominating N interpretation at the same time. The findings above follow from this suggestion: First, people for whom no sense of violation, invasion, or attack is evoked by light stimulation on footsoles, armpits, etc., will not be ticklish; conversely, ticklish people, on this account, are not of this character. Second, people who perceive an attack “in fun” may have a tickle response without actual touch, simply because the requisite judgment – a perceived fake attack – is present. And third, people ought not to be able to tickle themselves, either, since and to the extent that it is impossible to convince oneself that one is attacking oneself. You can’t fake an attack on yourself; you see through it every time. So both the physiological facts regarding the tickle response, and the more psychological findings are fully consistent with the present theory of humor.

I leave you with a decision to make. Is tickling physiological or psychological? Think, think, think.

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