Brain Food: This Laughter Study is Delightfully Tickling

Just when you thought the news couldn’t get more bizarre, now this: A new study reveals rats are ticklish. That’s not all. Not only are they ticklish, they laugh when tickled. You read that right. A group of researchers spent time tickling rats and discovered the animals “produced noises and other joyful responses.”

New York Times science columnist James Gordon best expressed my reaction to this news-breaking research: “It gives me new faith in people to think that accomplished researchers spent time tickling their experimental subjects,” Gordon writes. “And the similarity of rats to humans in the tickling realm is pleasantly bewildering.”

So why should you care about ticklish rats? Because, Science Magazine reports, they serve as a good model for tickling in people. As little was previously known about humans ticklishness, this is a big step for science.

Although humans as far back as Aristotle and Darwin have pondered tickling, we still don’t know how it evolved or why some parts of the body are ticklish and others are not. And modern science still hasn’t uncovered the answer to that burning question keeping many of us awake at night: Why can’t you tickle yourself?

Thankfully, the results of this study just made tickling a bit less mysterious. Researchers were able to find the “tickle center” in the rats’ brains to stimulate the equivalent of rat laughter. This is a big deal. Because it’s the first time that scientists have been able to confidently conclude that stimulating the brain can bring upon laughter. Previously, there was only evidence that emotional-based stimulation (ya know, like a funny joke) could make you laugh.

What’s more, the furry little guys apparently loved being tickled. They kept going back for more. The Berlin-based researchers even have a delightful word to describe how the animals reacted when the tickle hand descended on the little rat backs and bellies. Freudenspr√ľnge, which translated into English means “to jump for joy.”

The tickling didn’t stop there. The scientists took their research to the next level. They wanted to know if the rats’ state of mind could affect how the animals responded to the tickling. So they placed them in anxiety-inducing situations — for rats, that’s being placed on a high platform or being exposed to bright light — and found the animals responded less positively to the tickling.

In all seriousness though, understanding the neurological pathways cause rats to laugh is a legitimate way for scientists to better understand the human brain. And, no matter how our country’s future unfolds, at least we’ll always have freudenspr√ľnge.

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