Lightly trailing a feather or a finger over the instep of someone’s foot usually causes several predictable reactions: The person laughs, giggles or becomes irritated, instinctively draws his foot out of reach and does his utmost to avoid being tickled a second time. Dr. Michael Nirenberg of the America’s Podiatrist website says having ticklish feet is a good thing for a variety of reasons.
Though our feet are extremely strong, they’re also very sensitive due to almost 8,000 nerve endings located in each foot. Scientists believe that these nerve endings — called Meissner’s corpuscles — exist as a sort of evolutionary defense mechanism to help protect us from injuries, harmful impacts and potentially dangerous insects or reptiles on the ground. And because the nerves are a mixture of both touch receptors and pain receptors that carry information along neural pathways to the brain, feet tickling creates very different sensations in each person.
Indicator of Health
Ticklish feet are usually a good indication of health. Non-ticklish feet can indicate problems with nerve receptors caused by illnesses such as diabetes mellitus, arthritis, certain vitamin deficiencies or thyroid problems. Losing ticklish sensation on the feet can also indicate neuropathy, a disease in which the nerves deteriorate.
Knismesis vs. Gargalesis
There actually two different types of tickling, discovered in 1897 by psychologists G. Stanley Hall and Arthur Allin. Light tickling, such as the brush of a feather across the soles of your feet, is called knismesis. This type of tickle oftentimes produces irritation that makes a person squirm or instinctively pull away rather than laugh with pleasure. Meanwhile, harder tickling is called gargalesis. This type of tickle comes from using your fingers on the sole of the foot, for example, and usually elicits laughter from your “victim” if done in a playful manner.
Darwin’s and Other Theories
Scientists and psychologists at one time thought ticklishness was a reflex, but now view it as social-bonding behavior that can be learned at an early age between a parent and child. Nirenberg of the America’s Podiatrist website states that “tickling helps establish trust between a child and mother.” The mother-child tickling scenario was part of Darwin’s theory about tickling. He posited that a child expecting to be tickled laughed, but a child who wasn’t expecting to be tickled initially showed displeasure. Tickling a complete stranger’s foot on a subway train would most likely not draw the same reaction as tickling the feet of a child, lover, friend or sibling.
- Use a light touch. Whether you use your hands, a feather, or a brush, the best way to tickle a person is to use a light touch that causes a tingling sensation that makes people laugh. If you put in too much force, you’ll just cause pain and annoyance.
- Tickle the ends and the pads of the toes. This is a sensitive spot for many people, so you can try to delicately tickle this part of the feet first.
- Tickle between the toes. Try tickling the pad of the feet with one hand and tickling between the toes with another. Or try using one hand to hold the toes apart and tickling in between them with your other hand.
- Tickle the arch of the foot. This is another very sensitive area of the feet and is perfect for being tickled, whether you’re using your fingers, a feather, or a brush. Remember to use a light touch to heighten the tickling sensation and to avoid causing any pain to your victim.
- Tickle the tops of the toes. This may be an unexpected place to tickle your victim — and all the better! This part of the feet is very sensitive to tickling as well.