Cover Your Feet: Here Comes Gargalesis the Tickle Monster!

What’s the point of ticklish feet?

If you’ve ever wondered why feet are so darn ticklish, it’s likely you deduced it has something to do with the amount of nerve endings located in the soles. But, still — why’s it a tickle?

Each of your feet house around 8,000 nerve endings, known as Meissner’s corpuscles. Like all nerves, they’re there to tell you when something’s not right (pain receptors) and to help you understand your environment (touch receptors). While scientists haven’t yet pinned down the reason we experience gentle stimulation of these receptors as a tickle, the combination does seem to explain the mixture of discomfort and pleasure associated with having your feet stimulated just the right way.

Gargalesis or Knismesis? Big names with simple explanations

While the nomenclature might come across as a little intense when considering their giggle-inducing definitions, the difference between gargalesis and knismesis is rather simple. Knismesis is the irritating kind of tickle, like when a fly buzzes across your leg, or a feather grazes your foot. Unlike knismesis, people typically can’t induce gargalesis tickling on themselves.

Gargalesis is the deep, giggly, uncontrollable laughter we experience when someone stimulates ticklish areas, such as the feet. One of the more mysterious elements of gargalesis is that the reaction is different when the tickle-monster victim knows they’re about to be tickled. For example, if you’ve ever had someone surprise you by playfully stroking the arch of your foot, chances are, you weren’t too happy about it. Conversely, if that same action is the result of a tickle-fight, you’re much more likely to wail in laughter.

What’s the point of gargalesis?

Humans, and other primates, are capable of experiencing gargalesis. Therefore, as you might imagine, evolutionary scientists have carefully examined this unusual trait. Charles Darwin hypothesized that the process of natural selection favored our ancestors who formed stronger parent-child bonds. If you have nieces or nephews, younger siblings, children of your own, or a good memory, you’re familiar with the connection made between the tickler and ticklee. The personal contact, shared smiles, and laughter trigger dopamine and oxytocin (pleasure and love neurotransmitters). This further promotes the relentless desire to nurture our young, and for our offspring to feel warm and safe with their parents — which, of course, makes survival to reproductive age more likely.

Is gargalesis healthy?

Maybe this is good news — maybe it’s not! It depends on which side of the fingertips you’re on, nonetheless — ticklish feet are a sign of good health. It means your nerves are up for the task of keeping you and your feet safe from injury, albeit at the cost of some intense giggle-vulnerability.

When it comes down to it, not having ticklish feet is more of a problem than gargalesis. Lack of foot sensitivity can be a sign of diabetes mellitus, arthritis, thyroid problems, neuropathy, or vitamin depletion. But, don’t jump to any conclusions. Dr. Nina Coletta is well versed in the intricacies of foot health, and what your symptoms may or may not mean. So, if you’re experiencing a decline in your ability to be tickled, it’s probably a good idea to schedule a visit with Dr. Coletta as soon as possible.

Nina L. Coletta, DPM, PA

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