Rep. Eric Massa tickled his staff. Is that normal?

The state of the universe.
March 12 2010 6:00 PM

Why Do We Tickle?

Rep. Eric Massa tickled his staff. Is that normal?

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Still, these platonic tickle sessions appear to be rare. Based on a survey he conducted for his fascinating book Laughter, neuroscientist Robert Provine notes that adults and adolescents are seven times more likely to be tickled by members of the opposite sex. When asked whom they would most like to be tickled by, there was a fifteenfold disparity. Provine also notes that "the Dutch word for clitoris is kittelaar, 'the organ of being tickled or titillated.' " The Internet is littered with tickle fetish sites.

When Massa tickled his victim until he couldn't breathe, was he putting him in any danger? It's very unlikely. Gargalesis can induce convulsions, heavy panting, and the occasional loss of muscle control—which together can disrupt the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen, leading blood vessels in the brain to constrict. The most common result would be a harmless bout of fainting.

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Nevertheless, Robert Provine notes that history and mythology tell tales of death by tickle. The Leshii, a Russian fairy-tale monster, abducted peasants and tickled them to death. The Rusalka, drowned maidens of Ukrainian lore who populate inland waterways, tempted bypassing bachelors and delivered fatal tickle attacks. Real-life Prince Vlad—yes, that Vlad—of Transylvania may have tortured victims by dripping salty water onto their feet and letting goats lick it off. English rebel Simon de Montfort reportedly tickled opponents to death with a feather, and an Anabaptist sect uncomfortable with bloodshed is also alleged to have used the method. Provine suggests one possible mechanism for death-by-tickle: "The sustained, uncontrollable laughter and struggling of the victim may cause cardiac arrest or cerebral hemorrhage."

While tickling may be unlikely to kill a man, its lethal effect on a career has been demonstrated. After 24 years in the military, including serving in wars in Iraq and Bosnia, it looks like Eric Massa may finally go down in a tickle fight.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.