This Is Why It’s Scientifically Impossible to Tickle Yourself

Simply put: you can't tickle yourself because your brain is even more amazing than you thought.

This-Is-Why-It’s-Scientifically-Impossible-to-Tickle-Yourself_723125932_4-PM-production4 PM production/Shutterstock

If you want to probe one of the great mysteries of the human mind, all you need is a duster and your feet. Sit back, take your shoes and socks off, and gently stroke 
the feathers against your sole. Now ask a friend to do the 
same for you. If you are like most people, you will be 
left stone-faced by one but 
convulsed in ticklish agony by the other. Why?

Once the domain of childhood curiosity, the question of why we can’t tickle ourselves is now exciting neuroscientists. To understand their interest, consider this: Every time your body moves, it creates sensations that could potentially confuse you in all kinds of ways. Just imagine the chaos if every time one of your hands brushed your leg, you assumed that someone was fondling or attacking you. Being able to distinguish 
between your movement and the 
actions of others is therefore a central part of our sense of self and agency, aspects of the psyche that even the smartest robots can’t replicate—yet. In other words, your brain is playing tricks on you.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, of University College London, was one of 
the first to investigate the way the brain makes these lightning-fast 
decisions about the self and others. She scanned subjects’ brains as 
her colleagues tickled the palms of their hands and as the participants 
attempted to do so themselves. Turns out, the two brain regions that are activated when we get tickled—the somatosensory cortex, which processes touch, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which processes pleasant sensations—are less active when we tickle ourselves than when we are tickled by someone else.

From the resulting brain activity, Blakemore concluded that whenever we move our limbs, the brain’s cerebellum produces precise predictions of the body’s movements and then sends 
a second shadow signal that damps down activity in the somatosensory cortex (where tactile feelings 
are processed). The result is that when we tickle ourselves, we don’t feel 
the sensations with the same intensity as we would if they had come from someone else, and so we remain calm. Don’t miss 30 more amazing facts about your brain (that will totally blow your mind!)

Blakemore suspected there could be ways 
to fool the process and 
allow people to tickle themselves. So she 
designed a machine that allowed her subjects to move 
a stick that gently stroked a piece 
of foam over their palm, sometimes 
instantaneously and at other times with a delay of up to 200 milliseconds. It turned out that the greater the delay, the more ticklish the foam felt, perhaps because the cerebellum’s predictions no longer matched what the person was actually feeling.

Many others have since tried to find ways to trick the brain into tickling itself. For instance, controlling someone’s foot movements with magnetic brain stimulation, so that the hand tickles the foot against the person’s will, seems to do the trick.

But other experiments have 
produced puzzling results. One study tried to give subjects an out-of-body experience before tickling them, by fitting them with video goggles that let them see from the eyes of the 
experimenter and by synchronizing their movements. Even with the 
subjects confused about which body they inhabited, they were largely unmoved when they pressed a button that tickled both bodies simultaneously. Another experiment, 
in which expert lucid dreamers­ tried to tickle themselves in their sleep, also failed.

It may seem random, but understanding 
the self-tickling barrier could answer more practical questions, like why many schizophrenics can tickle themselves or whether 
robots ever could. “Your inability to tickle yourself suggests neurologically based definitions of self and other,” writes Robert Provine of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Developing a similar machine algorithm may lead to ‘ticklish’ robots [that can] distinguish touching from being touched and may provide a [new] construct of machine personhood.” If so, a duster could soon provide a bizarre new test for artificial intelligence: Just aim for the robot’s feet and see if it laughs. Speaking of, here are 9 weird facts about laughter you probably never knew.

 

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