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There’s just something about a rat jumping for joy when it’s been tickled that can change your whole outlook on rats, and neuroscience.
For one thing, it gives me new faith in people to think that accomplished researchers spent time tickling their experimental subjects. And the similarity of rats to humans in the tickling realm is pleasantly bewildering.
And I’m glad that the experiments have implications for human psychology, how moods affects behavior, and the importance of touch in forming social bonds.
But honestly, the research could have fallen flat, and the attempt would still have perked me up, particularly by the evidence of how much fun the rats were having.
Not only did they seek out the researchers’ hands to get tickled, and emit ultrasonic calls that are considered the rat’s equivalent of laughter, they also made joyful leaps.
That’s English for Freudensprungen, the common, and completely wonderful scientific term, for the behavior, as observed in many animals.
Other great words in tickling research are gargalesis — the kind of vigorous touch that induces laughter, and knismesis, defined in the paper the researchers published in the journal Science, as “non-laughter inducing light touch.” Unlike most of the science covered in the news, you can try this at home.
Still, why tickle rats, other than that it seems that a good time was had by all?
The biggest reason is that tickling is a profound puzzle that engaged both Aristotle and Darwin, as pretty much everything did, as well as more recent scientists.
As Michael Brecht and Shimpei Ishiyama of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin point out in their report, tickling raises many questions. We don’t know why it evolved, what purpose it might serve and why only certain body parts are ticklish. And what about that disappointing and confounding truth that all children and scientists must grapple with: You can’t tickle yourself...
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