What is Knismesis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2016
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In 1897, two psychologists, Granville Stanley Hall and Arthur Allin, came up with the terms knismesis and gargalesis to refer to the two forms of tickling. Hall is an important figure in American psychology; he helped to found the American Psychological Association, and also started the first journal of psychology in America. Arthur Allin was a well known personality in psychology as well, especially in the Western states, where he trained many talented psychologists during his years at the University of Boulder.

Knismesis is light tickling, such as those sensations from a feather, gentle touch, insect, or mild electrical current. Heavy tickling to sensitive areas of the body such as the knees, feet, and ribs is referred to as gargalesis. While the terms are not widely used, they can make an interesting topic of conversation.

Most people associate knismesis with a sense of calm, and it is sometimes used to lull animals into a trance, because the gentle touch seems to settle and relax the body. It can also sometimes be perceived as an itchy sensation, which has led some psychologists to suggest that the difference between knismesis, which rarely produces laughter, and gargalesis, which produces laughter and violent physical reactions, may have something to do with an individual's personal itchiness threshold. The light touch of tickling is also used in erotic play in many cultures, because it heightens the sense of touch for the person being tickled.


Gargalesis, on the other hand, is a much firmer form of tickling, which sometimes feels almost painful. Some psychologists have theorized that humans respond to gargalesis with laughter and encouraging facial expressions to promote playful roughhousing, an important part of balanced social interaction and fitness. Unlike knismesis, gargalesis must be performed by someone else in order to be effective, and the reasons for this are unknown.

Most humans have experienced light tickling, although they may not have known the proper name. Try lightly running a hand across the opposite arm: notice that the sensation feels strange and almost itchy, but does not make you want to laugh or pull your arm away. Most people have more sensitive feet; sometimes the experience of knismesis on the foot becomes too intense, and you may want the sensation to stop after a few minutes. All areas of the body are sensitive to knismesis, unlike gargalesis, which needs to be performed on specific, sensitive areas of the body in order to evoke a response. Some individuals also simply do not respond to gargalesis.


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Post 10

I must be very sensitive because I don't like knismesis, and like gargalesis even less. I never liked it when I was a kid and someone tried to find my ticklish spot.

I never found it to be ticklish, but felt it was painful, and would beg for them to stop. I remember reading that type of roughhousing is important for boys though, and should be part of their development.

Since I am female and never had any brothers, that is something I never understood. If you aren't sensitive, I can see how you would like a gentle touch, but I find the roughness of gargalesis too much.

Post 9

I can handle knismesis anywhere but my feet. My feet are very sensitive and I don't like anybody touching them. I find myself getting tense just thinking about someone giving me a foot massage.

If you started stroking my feet with a light touch like knismesis, it would drive me crazy. Not only does it tickle, but I just don't like that sensation on my feet.

My husband is just the opposite, and would love to have knismesis just about anywhere on his body.

Post 8

I know everybody reacts differently, but I find knismesis to be very relaxing. Because I like this light, gentle touch, I find myself using it on others.

When my kids were little and they were fuzzy, I found that this light, soothing touch on their tummies or back would help calm them down.

My dog also loves to have knismesis on her belly, and would lay there for hours if you would keep doing it.

For me there is nothing more relaxing than a light knismesis touch. Some people find it kind of ticklish, but I could easily fall asleep if someone were to do this up and down my back.

Post 7

@burcidi-- My own theory to our reaction to knismesis is that it's based on our ancestors' lives in the wild. The reason I believe this is because my dog reacts to knismesis the same way that most of us do. She first looks to see if there is something in that spot and then scratches to make sure it comes off if there is.

We do the same if we're walking outdoors and we feel a slight knismesis on our arm or leg. We feel like there might be an insect or something there and look at it and scratch it.

So knismesis reactions are probably our way of guarding ourselves from bugs and other potentially dangerous situations.

Post 6

@burcidi-- I know what you mean! I don't like knismesis on my feet. It tickles a lot and makes me pull my feet back. It can be really annoying and painful if someone continues to tickle my feet like that. I don't enjoy it at all. And I've been like this since I was a kid. I hated it when my mom tickled my feet or under my arms.

When my husband touches my back slightly however, it's nice. This knismesis is very relaxing, sensuous and even arousing for me. I don't know why I react so differently to these even though they're both knismesis.

Post 5

This is such an interesting topic!

From what I understand by reading the article and everyone's comments is that knismesis is a very subjective sensation. It's seen as positive interaction by some people, and as something annoying, or even painful by others.

I personally think it's more positive than negative. I also feel that there is a direct link between knismesis and gargalesis. I have certain areas on my skin that are much more sensitive than other areas. So knismesis can easily turn into gargalesis when I'm tickled in these areas.

I wonder why some parts of our body are more sensitive to this sensation than others? And why does the physical and emotional response to knismesis vary so much from person to person? Did Hall and Allin go into this at all in their work?

Post 4

@lighth0se33 – I don't like being tickled, but the only cramps I've ever experienced from it came from laughing so hard. My stomach hurts because the muscles spasm so much while I'm giggling uncontrollably.

Maybe it's psychological. Perhaps you just don't appreciate being taken over by someone like that and incapacitated. I know that I would hate being tickled by certain people, because I'm not comfortable with feeling vulnerable around them.

I think that gargalesis should only be performed between two people who are either family or intimate. Otherwise, it's just weird.

Post 3

Some people can take gargalesis, but to me, it is a form of torture. The tickling renders me almost helpless, yet I try hard to fight the tickler off.

I get such severe cramps when tickled that I can hardly move. I feel as if I could vomit. I end up just screaming until the person finally realizes I'm not having fun.

Does anyone else have this reaction to gargalesis? I wonder if there might be something wrong with me, because everyone else I know takes it so much better than I do. I don't know anyone else who physically hurts from being tickled.

Post 2

@Oceana – Maybe your nerves are just really sensitive. I find knismesis relaxing and comforting, and so does my husband.

There is something so gentle about it, and it makes me feel like he really cares. It's like paying close attention in a delicate manner, and it requires both restraint and affection.

There are certain areas where it just tickles too much, though. I can't stand knismesis on my feet or the backs of my knees, and my husband can't tolerate it on the backs of his arms.

Also, if I stroke his face lightly while he is sleeping, he swats at my hand like it's a fly. I think knismesis might have to be appreciated in context, because if you don't know you are receiving it from a person, you could easily think it's from a bug.

Post 1

Knismesis can be annoying. If someone is stroking me so lightly that you can barely feel it, it makes me feel as if insects are crawling across my skin, and I shoo their hand away.

Maybe I'm just hypersensitive, but I can't tolerate knismesis. Some people use this form of tickling to lull their babies to sleep. My mother told me that I couldn't stand it, even as a baby!

It makes me want to claw at the area being tickled. I think it makes my skin itch worse than a rash!

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