Knismesis and gargalesis

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Knismesis and gargalesis are the scientific terms, coined in 1897 by psychologists G. Stanley Hall and Arthur Allin,[1] used to describe the two types of tickling. Knismesis refers to the light, feather-like type of tickling. This type of tickling generally does not induce laughter and is often accompanied by an itching sensation.[2] Gargalesis refers to harder, laughter-inducing tickling, and involves the repeated application of high pressure to sensitive areas.[2]

While the two terms are used in academic papers, they do not appear in many dictionaries and their origin is rarely declared. The term knismesis comes from the Ancient Greek κνησμός (knēsmós) meaning 'itching'.[3] The term gargalesis stems from the Ancient Greek γαργαλίζω (gargalízō) meaning 'to tickle'.[4] The suffix -esis is used to form nouns of action or process.[5]


The knismesis phenomenon requires low levels of stimulation to sensitive parts of the body, and can be triggered by a light touch or by a light electric current. Knismesis can also be triggered by crawling insects or parasites, prompting scratching or rubbing at the ticklish spot, thereby removing the pest. It is possible that this function explains why knismesis produces a similar response in many different kinds of animals.[2] In a famous example, described in Peter Benchley's Shark!, it is possible to tickle the area just under the snout of a great white shark, putting it into a near-hypnotic trance.[6]


The gargalesis type of tickle works on primates (which include humans), and possibly on other species.[7] For example, ultrasonic vocalizations described as "chirping", which play into social behavior and even have therapeutic effects, are reported in rats in response to human tickling.[8][9][10][11][12] However, adult female rats may find the tickling sensation adverse.[13] Because the nerves involved in transmitting "light" touch and itch differ from those nerves that transmit "heavy" touch, pressure and vibration, it is possible that the difference in sensations produced by the two types of tickle is due to the relative proportion of itch sensation versus touch sensation.[14] While it is possible to trigger a knismesis response in oneself, it is usually impossible to produce gargalesthesia, the gargalesis tickle response, in oneself.[2] Hypergargalesthesia is the condition of extreme sensitivity to tickling.[15] The words knismesis and gargalesis were both used by Susie Dent in an episode of the BBC game show, Would I Lie to You? (Season 11, episode 4).


  1. ^ Hall, G. Stanley; Allin, Arthur (October 1897). "The psychology of tickling, laughing and the comic". The American Journal of Psychology. 9 (1): 1–42. doi:10.2307/1411471. JSTOR 1411471.
  2. ^ a b c d Harris, Christine R. (1999), "The mystery of ticklish laughter", American Scientist, 87 (4): 344(8), Bibcode:1999AmSci..87..344H, doi:10.1511/1999.4.344
  3. ^ "Definition of knismós in Liddell & Scott". Greek Word Study Tool. Perseus Digital Library.
  4. ^ "Definition of gargalizein in Liddell & Scott". Greek Word Study Tool. Perseus Digital Library.
  5. ^ "Tickling A Cat's Tummy: Invite For Cuddles Or Lacerated Hands?". Star Media Group. 2018-04-09.
  6. ^ "The word knismesis". New Scientist. 7 December 2002.
  7. ^ Provine, R. R. (1996). "Laughter". American Scientist. 84: 38–45.
  8. ^ "Science News 2001 - requires signup". Archived from the original on 2004-05-05. Retrieved 2016-06-07.
  9. ^ Wöhr, M.; Schwarting, R.K. (2007). "Ultrasonic communication in rats: Can playback of 50-kHz calls induce approach behavior?". PLOS ONE. 2 (12): e1365. Bibcode:2007PLoSO...2.1365W. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001365. PMC 2137933. PMID 18159248.
  10. ^ Panksepp, J.; Burgdorf, J. (2003). ""Laughing" rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy?" (PDF). Physiology & Behavior. 79 (3): 533–547. doi:10.1016/s0031-9384(03)00159-8. PMID 12954448. S2CID 14063615.
  11. ^ Rygula, R.; Pluta, H.; Popik, P. (2012). "Laughing rats are optimistic". PLOS ONE. 7 (12): e51959. Bibcode:2012PLoSO...751959R. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051959. PMC 3530570. PMID 23300582.
  12. ^ Burgdorf, J.; Kroes, R.A.; Moskal, J.R.; Pfaus, J.G.; Brudzynski, S.M.; Panksepp, J. (2008). "Ultrasonic vocalizations of rats (Rattus norvegicus) during mating, play, and aggression: Behavioral concomitants, relationship to reward, and self-administration of playback". Journal of Comparative Psychology. 122 (4): 357–367. doi:10.1037/a0012889. PMID 19014259.
  13. ^ Paredes-Ramos, P.; Miquel, M.; Manzo, J.; Pfaus, J.G.; López-Meraz, M.L.; Coria-Avila, G.A. (2012). "Tickling in juvenile but not adult female rats conditions sexual partner preference". Physiology & Behavior. 107 (1): 17–25. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.05.017. PMID 22640704. S2CID 161288.
  14. ^ Selden, Samuel T. (2004), "Tickle", J Am Acad Dermatol, vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 93–97, doi:10.1016/s0190-9622(03)02737-3, PMID 14699372
  15. ^ Corsini, Raymond J. (2002). The Dictionary of Psychology. Psychology Press. p. 457. ISBN 9781583913284.