Tickling As Therapy? Don’t Tell My Brother Please. 

As strange as it may sound, tickle therapy is becoming a global trend. Much like a massage, you still have to lie on a bed in a warm, dark and peaceful room. However instead of having a professional masseuse hack the tension out of your shoulders. You’ll now have the same professional masseuse… well… tickle you.

Now I’ve calculated that there could be one of three thoughts going on in your head at this stage:

One – this is just another gimmick I need to pay for with supposed health benefits. Why can’t I just go for a normal massage?

Two – My worst childhood nightmare has actually evolved into business where I can now pay for something my siblings did for free.

Or three – Okay cool, let’s see what this is all about – maybe there’s some actual proof to back ridiculous concept this up.

In all honesty, I had thoughts one and two in my mind for quite some time; but after doing some research, let me explain why I think this is actually a pretty damn good idea.

Let’s talk about touch…

Human touch is a powerful thing. Whether it’s a gentle caress, friendly hug or heart-throbbing kiss – touch generates powerful physical and emotional responses. In fact, you can also just as easily be annoyed, repulsed or scared by touch depending on the situation. I don’t think anyone here used to jump for joy when mum came out the kitchen armed with a wooden spoon (Is the Italian in me coming out yet?)

Nonetheless, we’ve proved that touch is an integral part of human development and unfortunately, many of us seem to disregard its importance. However, the over-riding reason for this problem in the 21st century is, of course, due to technology. We are becoming digitally saturated, and although there is an important place for technology, we also need to assess the risks involved with relying on so much.

Sherry Turkle is a professor of social psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has devoted her career to understanding the influence of technology on human identity. In one of her latest TED Talks she shares,

“I believe (…) technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

Through Turkle’s research and studies. She has concluded that an over-reliance on digital communication can result in feelings of real-world isolation and loneliness, emotional disconnection, anxiety and mental exhaustion.

So how does human touch and face-to-face interaction actually resolve many  societal problems we seem to be creating? Well psychologists today seem to think we need touch more than ever right now for many reasons. (1) (2)   

1. It builds trust

Touch helps bond people together. Neuroscientist Edmund Ross, found that physical touch activates the parts of your brain linked to feelings of reward and compassion. This in turn can help encourage the development and success of people working together. Various small case studies have also been done to back it up. French psychologist, Nicolas Guéguen, conducted a study and to prove that when teachers touch students platonically, it encourages their learning and those students are three times as likely to speak up in class. Bonjour monsieur!

2. It boosts your overall wellbeing

 As adults, we actually need human touch to thrive. There are copious amounts of studies done over the last years to prove it. One study from the University of North Carolina found that women who hugged their spouse or partner frequently (even for just 20 seconds) had lower blood pressure. This could be because a good cuddle increases your oxytocin levels, however, if you’re able to keep your blood pressure low over a long period of time could actually decrease your risk of heart disease.

3. It stimulates non-sexual emotional intimacy

Yes, we know that touch can be perceived sexually. However, the non-sexual intimacy associated with touch can have some pretty life-changing benefits. One of the most prominent of which is less violence. American developmental psychologist James W. Prescott has put forward that the origins of violence in society were related to the lack of mother-child bonding – less touch as a child leads to greater violence.

Where does tickle therapy fit in to all of this?

Now I am presuming that the concept of tickle therapy is seeming more justifiable in your mind. But I’m sure the next question in your head is (and it’s a good one), ‘why can’t I just go for a normal massage?’

Yes, much like a standard gentle massage, tickling can still provide physical benefits such as tension release and promoting healthy blood flow. Dr Alan J. Fridlund, Ph.D. Clinical psychologist and associate professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara even says,

“When done nicely and under the best circumstances, tickling can actually increase blood flow and produce a healthy flush to the skin.”

The answer is simple. Tickling, done correctly, can be the product of socialisation.

Under your skin are millions of tiny nerve endings that serve as a message delivery system from what your body is exposed to through touch and your brain. This is basically why you you’ll do stupid things. Like touch a hot stove or stroke a hedgehog once in your life – and never again. Your brain will remind you it didn’t go well the last time.

The same goes for tickling. When your nerve endings are lightly stimulated by another person’s fingers or even by a feather. Your brain will analyse the type of touch it is and decide if it’s a pleasant feeling or not. Anyone who has been tickled too hard knows that too much pressure can cause tickling to go from soothing to painful. Scientists have been able to understand how your brain responds to being tickled through the use of functional MRI studies.

It is also this very technology that has unveiled why we can’t tickle ourselves. Yes, that’s right, no matter how hard you try – you cannot tickle yourself. (You’re testing it out right now, aren’t you?)

This is because the part of your brain and responsible for governing movement, will be able to predict if you are about to tickle yourself and dulls the feeling. It may have something to do with how your brain filters out unnecessary information in order to concentrate on the important stuff. (3) So to experience the stress relief, endorphin rush giggly buzz you get from gentle tickling. You will need to outsource it from another human being.

tickle therapy | Longevity LIVE

Now think about this carefully. As a young child, how many times would nuzzle into your parent’s arms as they stroked your head? Or possible barter with a sibling for a back ‘scratch’? The truth is, we’ve done this tickling thing within our social groups for a long time. And finally we’re starting to see just how essential it is for our emotional health and relationships.

In fact, this is what sparked public relations specialist and tickling aficionado Isabel Aires to open one of the first tickle spa’s in the world, Cosquillearte. As a young child, Aires was always tickled by her father gently enough to put her to sleep. “One day I just thought, why can’t I pay someone to do this, in the same way as I can pay for a massage,” she shared in an interview with Oddity Central.

Cosquillearte, like many tickle spas there are today, does not practice the fingers-jabbing-into-your-sides type of tickling. They use a variety of strokes and cater to everyone’s individuals needs. For example, if you’re very ticklish and squirmy, it’s preferable to opt for a tickle-technique with more pressure.

So to recap – Not only does tickle therapy present some pretty hard hitting facts about its efficacy in theory. But hopefully there’s been some mild evidence that it isn’t torturous experience either. So the last question to ask is, are you ready to give it a go?