Why Are Humans Ticklish?

iStock/andresr
iStock/andresr

Fabian van den Berg:

There are a few ideas about why humans experience ticklishness and there are also two kinds of tickling. One of them is a defense mechanism or warning sign that something moving is on you. Think parasites on your skin or ... no, don’t think about that. The fancy name for that is knismesis. This is the kind of tickling you feel when something soft brushes up against you. Usually, this type of tickling doesn’t make you laugh; It tends to give you goosebumps, and feel a bit uncomfortable.

Another aspect of tickling has to do with the specific spots that are ticklish. The fancy name for this one is gargalesis. This kind of tickling is more intense and leads to uncontrolled laughter. Gargalesis isn’t as straightforward as knismesis, and most likely serves some kind of social aspect and helps us bond.


Quora

There are specific spots that are ticklish in this latter way, and those are important for parents and children to form bonds. When we grow up those same spots are also erogenous zones, which help with mating, another social activity we engage in.

That these spots are also vulnerable areas on our bodies is probably no coincidence. Some experts think there is an aspect of tickling behavior meant to teach youngsters to protect their most vulnerable areas.

But other animals tickle, too. Our close cousin the chimpanzee tickles during play, though they make more of a panting, out-of-breath sound when they are laughing. They enjoy it, which they show by not leaving you alone afterward because they want you to keep going.

Elephants can be tickled as well, but my favorite is the rat.

A woman plays with her pet rat
iStock/Imagesbybarbara

There was a study where it was someone’s job to tickle rats (that must look amazing on your resume). The researchers in question were like, "Come tickle rats with me." Fun aside, this was serious research. It was known that rats make specific high-frequency noises when they play or have sex, noises of enjoyment (kind of like laughing). When they tickled the rats they made the same noises, indicating that the rats were enjoying being tickled, similar to the way humans do. It activates brain areas and pathways that also light up when humans experience joy (at least, the areas analogous to ours).

But a note must be made here: We are often quick to ascribe human emotions to animals, which can be dangerous. Animals like chimps and rats seem to enjoy tickling, so there’s reason to think they experience it in a positive way. But not all animals are like that—so experts aren't 100 percent sure they really like being tickled all that much. (Unfortunately, we can’t ask them.)

A tragic example of misinterpretation is the slow loris. These critters can be tickled, but they don’t like it. What humans interpret as enjoyment is actually fear, making the playful behavior in humans or primates literal torture for this cute-looking animal.

Tickling likely serves as a warning signal and training to protect ourselves. It has a secondary feature in humans, other primates, and rats it seems: to facilitate social bonding. But be careful who you tickle—not all animals experience the same enjoyment (some humans don’t like it either).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What Makes Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

iStock.com/JoeChristensen
iStock.com/JoeChristensen

By tilting its head slightly to the side, a dog can melt the heart of even the most hardened cat person. Most everyone finds this behavior adorable, but few people can explain what compels a dog to do it. Are dogs somehow aware of the effect they have on humans, using a cute trick to exploit us for affection?

Experts say the real answer has more to do with your dog's ability to empathize. Dogs are impressively good at reading and responding to our body language and vocal cues. When you're lecturing your pooch for taking food off the counter, they're taking it all in even if the literal message gets lost in translation. Same goes for when you’re giving your pup praise. Dogs are capable of recognizing certain parts of human language, so when they cock their heads as you speak to them, it's possible they're listening for specific words and inflections they associate with fun activities like meals and playtime.

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The head-tilt may also have something to do with how the canine ear is constructed. Even though dogs sense frequencies humans are incapable of hearing, their ability to detect the source of sounds is less precise than ours. A dog's brain calculates extremely minuscule differences between the time it takes a sound to reach each ear, so a simple change in head position could provide them with useful sensory information. When dogs tilt their heads, some experts believe they are adjusting their pinnae, or outer ears, in order to better pinpoint the location of a noise.

Stanley Coren of Psychology Today believes that vision also has something to do with this behavior. If you try holding your fist in front of your nose, you can get a fair sense of what it’s like to view the world with a muzzle. When watching someone speak, the "muzzle" will block the lower part of their face from view, and if you tilt your head to one side you will be able to see it more clearly. In addition to being able to perceive emotional cues in our voices, dog can also read our facial expressions. When cocking their heads to the side, Coren suggests that dogs are trying to get a better view of our mouths, where our most expressive facial cues originate.

If your dog is a frequent head-tilter, this could mean that they're especially empathetic. Some experts have reported that dogs who are more socially apprehensive are less likely to tilt their heads when spoken to. But if your dog doesn't display this behavior, there's no need to automatically label them as a canine sociopath (especially if they have pointy ears or a flatter snout). And even if the head tilt does come from instinct, the more owners respond to it with positive reinforcement, the more likely dogs are to do it in search of praise.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

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