Tickling in Popular Culture

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What is tickling?

Tickling can be described as a peculiar sensation that evokes a strong urge to laugh or giggle. It is a playful act that involves touching or gently moving sensitive areas of the body, such as the feet, armpits, or ribs. Tickling is a universal experience, enjoyed by people of all ages across different cultures. Despite its common occurrence, the exact mechanism behind ticklish sensations remains a subject of scientific investigation.

Tickle Fleabag
An example of tickle involuntary response in “Fleabag”

What causes tickling?

When tickled, the brain receives signals from specialized nerve fibers, which are responsible for processing gentle touch. These fibers transmit information to the brain’s somatosensory cortex, creating a tickling response. However, the exact purpose and evolutionary significance of ticklishness are still debated among researchers.

Why do we laugh when we are ticklish?

Laughter is the means by which the organism vents the astonishment of feeling touched in the most vulnerable parts of the body. Although the victim wants the sensation to end, laughter suggests pleasure and appreciation, prompting the tickler to continue, creating an interesting short-circuit at the level of expressed and received meaning.

There are several theories that attempt to explain this phenomenon.

Social bonding theory

The social bonding theory proposes that tickling serves as a way to strengthen social bonds and promote interaction between individuals.

Laughter is associated with a feeling of pleasure and happiness, and it conveys a feeling of appreciation and well-being to the observer. Thus, even if the victim recoils in an attempt to defend himself, the act of laughing urges the tickler to continue, to the pleasure of interaction for both.

Tickle Bleach
An example of tickling between friends in Bleach

Sensory stimulation theory

Sensory stimulation theory suggests that tickling stimulates the brain and enhances sensory processing abilities.

Body protection theory

In young mammals, tickling automatically prompts the body to defend itself from assault toward vulnerable body parts, and laughter evidently conveys an unintended signal that the phenomenon is not painful but pleasurable.

In contact with other members of the species, therefore, this prompts the observer to continue, suggesting that the tickling is received as pleasurable: in this way the sufferer may learn more about defending himself. Otherwise, if the attack ceased immediately, there would be less learning to self-defense from these painless attacks.

Tickle attack in Assassination Classroom
An example of tickle attack in Assassination Classroom

The representation of tickling in popular culture

Tickling is a complex mechanism involving various aspects:

  • contact by an external subject of vulnerable parts of the body (neck, armpits, hips, stomach, feet)
  • the stimulus to smile or laugh on the part of the tickler
  • the automatic reflex to remove the touched part from being tickled by covering it and wriggling away from it.

Thus, a relevant aspect of tickling is the loss of control of one’s body, which results in decomposed behaviors such as laughing intensely and wiggling.

These reactions have generated in human culture a strong interest in this phenomenon.

In popular culture, tickling has been represented in different ways and for the purpose of achieving specific even opposite effects on the victim (generating pleasure as well as punishment).

Tickle Distraction
A challenge involving tickling in Distraction italian TV show

Tickling is a phenomenon frequently represented in movies, comic books, TV series, and cartoons. Especially in works aimed at young people, tickling takes the place of more gory forms of violence, where it is performed for the purpose of forcing someone to confess something against their will. It is generally performed as a form of playful or affectionate interaction between two or more people, as a form of playful torture, or to generate a sense of awe in the viewer (e.g., the expectation of a great fear that turns out to be simple tickling).

Accidental tickle

Tickling is provoked in an unintended way: the victim realizes that an event is taking place (especially a possible threat) when one of his or her body parts is touched.

Accidental tickle in "Squid Girl"
Accidental tickle in “Shinryaku! Ika Musume”

This is a frequent reaction when massaging sensitive body parts.

Making people smile

Tickling is performed to prompt the victim to smile, usually against his or her will.

It may be a way to force a serious person to smile in order to appear happy (contrary to his or her usual mood), or a ploy to make a person smile in circumstances that require a serious expression instead, in order to embarrass him or her.

Tickle Bleach fan comic
An example of tickling to make a girl smile a in a Bleach fan manga.

Making people laugh

The explicit purpose of tickling is to make the sufferer laugh against his or her will. The purpose is not merely to make the facial expression change, but precisely to make the mouth open and generate laughter.

Tickle Julia Roberts in PRetty Woman
Julia Roberts was tickled offscreen by director Garry Marshall on “Pretty Woman”, because he was a genuine laugh by her

Expression of affection

Tickling is carried out as a form of affection between two people, by virtue of the confidence between the two, although the victim may not be happy to receive it.

Tickle Joseph Joestar


Tickling is carried out suddenly to generate a reaction of surprise in the victim and produce a genuine reaction.

Tickle Jenna Bush and Savannah Guthrie
An example of tickle to provoke an instinctive reaction

Muscle contractions

The explicit purpose of tickling may be to make the victim squirm, for the purpose of, for example, losing a challenge, dropping a nearby object, or letting go of a hold.

Tickling armpit anime
An example of tickle to make lower arms


Tickling is carried out for the purpose of disturbing a person’s concentration by making it difficult for him to perform a given activity that would otherwise be easy.

TIckle distraction Jessie J

Comic relief

Tickling is instrumental in generating a situation of amazement in the viewer. The effects of tickling are exaggerated, or it is carried out in unexpected contexts.

Tickle Bubble Girl in My Heor Academia
An example of funny situation related to tickle in “My Hero Academia”

Health sign

Tickling is a direct or indirect consequence of a process implemented on the body for the purpose of checking health conditions.

The most classic case is the Babinski reflex, which occurs by passing a sharp-tipped object along the soles of the feet to control the instinctive reaction.

Typically this process results in smiles and laughter.

Tickle Babinski reflex
Babisnki reflex test can make the patient smile and laugh

Endurance challenge

The explicit purpose of tickling is to test how impassive the victim can remain before laughing, squirming, or losing focus on what he or she is doing.

These are usually friendly challenges, or tests within television shows.

Michelle Bass tickled on Big Brother UK
An example of silence challenge involving tickling in Big Brother UK 5


The explicit purpose of tickling may be to cause the victim discomfort, suffering or humiliation.

The most classic example is the pillory torture, in which victims were locked in a pillory with vulnerable body parts that their assailants could tickle to punish them.

Tickle pillory Renfaire


Tickling is carried out for the purpose of provoking a unpleasurable situation in the victim so unbearable that he or she agrees to perform a given action (e.g., providing information).

Tickle torture Assassionation Classroom
An example of friendly tickle torture in “Assassionation Classroom”

Magic sawing

Cutting a woman in half is a classic magic trick during which a magician apparently performs the division of a female assistant into two equally living parts.

For the purpose of demonstrating that the assistant is alive, the magician himself or a helper provides a tickle on the victim’s feet, making her laugh and showing that she feels what is happening to her body.

Magic sawing tickle


A subgenre of accidental tickling is that which occurs in the case of foot massages or pedicures. This is one of the very few occasions in daily life in which the feet, normally covered, are free and touched by strangers.

The rubbing of the soles of the feet provokes in the victim the need to laugh and squirm, but at the same time it is necessary to resist in order to end the process and not arouse embarrassment.

Tickle pedicure

Scientific demonstration and analysis

Tickling is performed for the very purpose of analyzing the process behind it and the reactions it entails in the sufferer.

Physical pleasure

Tickling is part of a ritual performed between two or more people for the purpose of experiencing displeasure from the experience of practicing or receiving it.

Tickle 50 shades of black
An example of tickle ritual for personal pleasure in “50 shades of black”


Tickling is part of a public event, carried out for the purpose of conveying well-being and enjoyment to participants and spectators.

Tickle Bosa Turistika