The Weird Reason You Laugh After Getting Tickled

Those of us who are ticklish probably discovered this in early childhood when some adult who loved us couldn't get enough of the uncontrollable giggle we'd emit when someone ticked us, but just because that laugh is amusing to others, doesn't mean we ever really enjoyed being tickled! That laughter, as it turns out, is scientifically different from other types of laughter. To understand this, it helps to understand what laughter actually is in the first place. According to Scientific American, we humans begin to laugh at three months of age, much much sooner than we ever speak. In general, laughter serves a social purpose by indicating to others that we want to connect with them. For instance, the speaker in a conversation is more likely to laugh than the listener, as it signals they are open and warm. Further, children are significantly more likely to laugh at a cartoon if another child is present than when watching alone, even though they found the show equally funny whether alone or with company. While we do laugh when we are alone, we laugh much more in a group.

Further, laughter is very healthy for us physically — it releases endorphins, which make us feel happy and can reduce both pain and stress. Further, laughing can even boost our immune system by releasing neuropeptides, which combat illness and physical signs of stress. But why do we laugh when we're tickled?

Why we laugh when someone tickles us

There are some similarities between the laughter we display when having a conversation or witnessing something funny and the type we display when being tickled — MRI studies have shown that when we laugh at a joke and when we laugh while being tickled it activates an area of the brain called the Rolandic Operculum (via Mental Floss). This is the part responsible for facial movements and also vocal reactions to emotion. However, and this is a big however, laughter that results from tickling also activates the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain responsible for our fight or flight response that is also triggered when we are anticipating pain or are faced with an immediate threat. Not only does this explain why tickling can be stressful for those on the receiving end of it, but it could also explain why people are generally incapable of tickling themselves (because if we know we have full control over the situation, we don't perceive something coming at us).

Further, some scientists think that our involuntary laughter when someone else tickles us might be an evolutionary survival tactic to demonstrate submission to the person "attacking" us so they don't hurt us. Yikes! No wonder some people hate to be tickled so much! So next time you're tickling someone who's saying "don't" while laughing at the same time, don't assume the laughter means they are enjoying it — it might just be their brain trying to get you to stop. So stop.