Dear Matthew Alice:How come some people are ticklish and others aren't? My boyfriend claims it is simply mind over matter. If so, am I mentally weak for being ticklish? — S.J., Chula Vista
Maybe mentally weak for listening to Prince Charming too much, but otherwise you’re probably no more mush-brained than the average Matthew Alice correspondent. That’s not an unqualified endorsement, but it means at least you can cope with normal daily living without getting your necktie caught in the toaster. Anyway, ticklishness does have a mental element to it, but it’s basically physical. And basically a modified itch or pain response.
The sensory nerve endings distributed around our skin are set in three layers. The outermost receptors are sensitive to light pressure, which the brain interprets as a tickling or itchy feeling. (Signals from deeper receptors and additional pressure are interpreted in our brains as varying degrees of pain.) Where you are ticklish and how ticklish you are depends in part on the distribution pattern of these receptors across the outer layer of skin. Beyond that, how hysterical you get at the threat of being tickled is pretty psychological. With a lot of concentrated effort, you probably could train yourself to remain as calm as a Buddhist monk when your boyfriend lunges at your vulnerable armpits or feet. You’d still feel the tickle, but you’d short-circuit your reaction to it, though there may be a limit to how much of the response you can suppress. (Tickling is believed to have been one of the more creative methods of torture in Ancient Rome.) Certainly, that would remove all the sadistic fun for Romeo, but my guess is he’d quickly find something else to harass you with — fingernails on a blackboard, maybe. All in all, it would probably be easier to put forth some concentrated effort and find a new boyfriend.