What Do Laughing Rats Teach Us About Family?

The “tickle monster” (aka-my hand) was poised above my infant daughter’s body as she lay on her back, hands held cautiously in front of her, eyes wide and sparkling with joy.  Her hands served as a buffer between the “tickle monster” and the “tickle monster’s” target–her belly and neck.  Her eyes followed my hand’s every move. “The tickle monster’s gonna get you,” I said in my best sing-song voice. When the “tickle monster” made a slight movement in my daughter’s direction, she curled into a ball, grabbed her stomach and started to giggle. The “tickle monster” then swooped toward her belly and tickled her. She laughed hysterically, a contagious laugh that made several other people in the room laugh, too. I tried to end our game, but she took my hand and put it on her stomach. She wanted to continue.


I was reminded of these “tickle games” when I read about a study in which researchers imposed a “tickle test” on a group of rats. (Not that my daughters are rats…oh man, that didn’t come out right…bad sentence sequencing. Maybe they won’t read this one. Anyway….) In this study, the researchers “exposed a one group of rats to a tickle test”–they tickled the rats for two, two minute sessions on a daily basis for two weeks (a lot of two’s there). After a short time, the rats seemed to enjoy the company of the tickler. When the tickler’s hand entered the caged, they followed it around, waiting to get tickled. (read more about this study and watch the video by clicking here


After two weeks, the researchers subjected the “tickle test” group and a “non-tickle test” group to a repeated stressful situation (did you ever think you’d see the words “tickle test,” rats, and stress in a blog about family?). After their stress hormones were elevated, the stressful situation ended and the researchers monitored the rats’ stress hormones. The “tickle test” group of rats recovered from the stress more quickly. Their stress hormones went down more rapidly. The tickling appeared to have helped them recover from stress. (read more of these results here)


Of course we do not live in a family of rats. Well…. No, really, we don’t. But several years ago, studies showed that laughter, as well as the anticipation of laughter, reduced stress hormones while increasing beta-endorphins (feel good hormones) in humans. In other words, laughter helps us recover from stress, too. I think that the experience of tickling and laughter builds connections and pathways in our brains that help us recover from stress. Maybe the physical contact of tickling is the key ingredient. Or, maybe the key ingredient is the playful interaction enjoyed…or the time spent laughing together…or the hormones released during laughter. I don’t know. But, I do know this: if you would like to teach your family to recover from stressful events more quickly, have some fun together. Tickle, laugh, play. Enjoy one another’s company. I actually think I’m going to push my luck and make my family a “tickle test group.” (That’s a group of people, not rats…come on people, what did you think I meant?) Anyway, want to join the fun…tickle away!

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