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Ticklish Lab Rats May Reveal Who We Are

By Sandy Schroeder

Who doesn’t love/hate to have their feet tickled? It is an exquisite torture that can make most of us giggle uncontrollably.  Looking closer, Scientific American and Science point to research on ticklish rats that may tell us new things about our own emotions.

Picture a chubby little rat leaping around its cage, speeding toward a scientist’s hand, anticipating the next excruciatingly wonderful tickle. When he or she gets it he chirps and literally jumps for joy.

That response is exactly what Berlin’s Humboldt University researchers were looking for as they learned rats only like tickling when they are in a pleasant, protected situation. Researchers also found they could simulate the same tickling response by touching the right spot in the rat’s brain.

What It Means for Us

Researchers believe the rat’s behavior suggests human tickling is tied to an individual’s mood. Like rats, We may only giggle when we feel happy and protected. Future research will want to look at the brain circuit’s relationship to mood, and positive or negative attitudes.

This hands-on manipulation of lab rats could ultimately provide breakthrough information on how human emotional reactions work, which could help psychologists and psychiatrists more effectively treat emotional disorders.

Much of this emotional mood territory is uncharted. So we can imagine the researchers rubbing their hands in glee as they create one lab exercise after another for their tiny rat subjects.

One funny side note: One of the researchers said he is the absolute hit of every party when he announces he “tickles rats” for a living!

The Laughter Umbrella

Meanwhile, I suspect all of us can benefit from the ticklish rat results in a much more immediate way. My at-home, totally amateur research, has taught me how valuable laughter, including tickling, can be for the emotional health of my family.

My family is fairly intense, and a sunny smile can turn bleak in seconds, raining on all of us. But through trial and error, I learned how effective humor could be to bring out the sun.

When one of my kids was in a funk, I soon learned that I could tickle their feet and change everything.  I also learned that laughter, in general, was a valuable tool to keep my family members in touch with each other, helping them help each other.

When one of us was frowning a lot, someone in the family would be sure to make some droll comment, sending all of us into giggles, easily erasing the frown.  It did not always work, but when it did, it was magic.


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