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The neuroscience of human tickle perception

Project description

Investigating ‘ticklishness,’ one of the greatest neuroscience enigmas

Numerous studies have elucidated the structure and function of the human somatosensory system from sensory receptors up to perception. However, we are largely in the dark about what makes a touch ticklish, why humans are ticklish, why some body areas are more ticklish than others and why we cannot ‘self-tickle.’ The EU-funded TICKLISHUMAN project aims to answer these questions and more through a multidisciplinary approach harnessing haptic technology, somatosensory psychophysics, neuroimaging data, brain stimulation and advanced statistical modelling techniques. The knowledge derived could help add to the repertoire of biomarkers for mental disorders and neurodevelopmental conditions.


Tickle is one of the most enigmatic human sensations: we do not know how a touch can turn into tickle, and why our brain responds to other people’s tickles but not to our own. To date, there is no theory that can satisfactorily explain why touch on certain body areas feels more ticklish than on others, and why some people are more prone to be tickled compared to others. Despite this fundamental knowledge gap, experiments on tickle perception have been extremely scarce, and there is currently no active research on the topic at an international level.
In TICKLISHUMAN, I propose a new interdisciplinary approach to understand the neuroscience of human tickle perception, based on modern haptic technology, somatosensory psychophysics, multivariate pattern analyses of neuroimaging data, brain stimulation, and advanced statistical modelling techniques. First, my team and I will establish a stimulation protocol that optimally induces tickle sensations, and we will identify their neural profile. Building upon my findings on how the brain differentiates between self-generated and externally generated touch, we will delineate the body maps where the perception of tickle is amplified and we will determine the brain mechanism that cancels self-generated tickle sensations. Finally, we will model individual differences in tickle perception as a function of central, peripheral, personality, and demographic characteristics.
TICKLISHUMAN has the strong potential to radically transform our scientific and popular thinking about the social, motor, and clinical neuroscience of tickle. The novel insights from the project will permit to explore the very undervalued clinical and functional implications of tickle in the next decades, including its use as a cognitive biomarker in schizophrenia and autism, and its evolutionary function across species.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 499 938,00
6525 XZ Nijmegen

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Oost-Nederland Gelderland Arnhem/Nijmegen
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 499 938,00

Beneficiaries (2)