NCBI ROFL: Can a machine tickle?

By ncbi rofl | April 12, 2010 7:00 pm

tickle_baby_feet“It has been observed at least since the time of Aristotle that people cannot tickle themselves, but the reason remains elusive. Two sorts of explanations have been suggested. The interpersonal explanation suggests that tickling is fundamentally interpersonal and thus requires another person as the source of the touch. The reflex explanation suggests that tickle simply requires an element of unpredictability or uncontrollability and is more like a reflex or some other stereotyped motor pattern. To test these explanations, we manipulated the perceived source of tickling. Thirty-five subjects were tickled twice–once by the experimenter, and once, they believed, by an automated machine. The reflex view predicts that our “tickle machine” should be as effective as a person in producing laughter, whereas the interpersonal view predicts significantly attenuated responses. Supporting the reflex view, subjects smiled, laughed, and wiggled just as often in response to the machine as to the experimenter. Self-reports of ticklishness were also virtually identical in the two conditions. Ticklish laughter evidently does not require that the stimulation be attributed to another person, as interpersonal accounts imply.”


Image: flickr/battywing

Related content:
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: Finally, scientists create a breed of rat that loves to be tickled!
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: Why can’t you tickle yourself?
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: rated G

  • Rob H

    While very interesting, I wouldn’t let that machine near my feet. That thing is scary looking!

  • Carter

    Or do we personify machines?

  • Fabian

    The study comes far too late. We have experimented in our physiology courses with professor
    von-Campenhausen with a self-built machine, that we could tickle even ourselves without anyone else. It was just the mechanism of tickling that had to be independent of the movements of our hands. Even passive movement of our hand on the machine gave a strong tickling response.

  • Joanna Cake

    Shouldn’t that device have a feather duster on the end a la Ken Dodd? I cant imagine anyone finding those sharp prongs ticklish. For me it’s always soft tickling that has the most pronounced effect, except for the ribs of course. But one of those hard sharp prongs against the ribs? I dont think so!

  • Ben

    Just FYI, it was the experimenter tickling them both times, only the participant believed it to be a machine half of the time. They didn’t really invent a tickling machine :)


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


Quirky, funny, and surprising science news from the edge of the known universe.

About ncbi rofl

NCBI ROFL is the brainchild of two Molecular and Cell Biology graduate students at UC Berkeley and features real research articles from the PubMed database (which is housed by the National Center for Biotechnology information, aka NCBI) that they find amusing (ROFL is a commonly-used internet acronym for "rolling on the floor, laughing"). Follow us on twitter: @ncbirofl


See More

Collapse bottom bar