Adventures in Ethics and Science

Do you ever suspect that kids save their best questions for just before “goodnight” as a delaying tactic? Or is there some other plausible explanation for a kid regularly entering into deeply interesting territory on the way to dream time?

Dr. Free-Ride: Sweet dreams.

Elder offspring: Why are feet ticklish?

Dr. Free-Ride: Huh?

Elder offspring: Why are feet ticklish?

Dr. Free-Ride: I suppose it probably has to do with how may nerve endings there are up near the surface of the soles of your feet.

Elder offspring: The soles of my feet are down, not up.

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, if you insist.

Elder offspring: But why are they ticklish? What are all those nerve endings there for?

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmm. You’re saying that if our bodies have a certain feature, there’s probably a good reason for that feature to be there?

Elder offspring: Yeah. So what’s the reason humans have ticklish feet?

Dr. Free-Ride: Obviously, so I can tickle your feet to wake you up in the morning!

Elder offspring: No!

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, why do you think they’re ticklish?

Elder offspring: Mmm … maybe so we’ll notice stuff when we walk?

Dr. Free-Ride: That’s an interesting thought. But there’s some stuff that it would hurt to walk on barefoot, what with all those nerves. And people who spend a lot of time walking barefoot get thick callouses on the soles of their feet that might make their feet less ticklish.

Elder offspring: Maybe all the nerves are there to make us wear shoes that protect our feet.

Dr. Free-Ride: Are you saying our feet are the product of our co-evolution with shoemakers?

Elder offspring: Mmm-hmm.

Dr. Free-Ride: Good night!

Comments

  1. #1 Super Sally
    March 21, 2008

    Like mother like daughter–some generations.

    I vividly remember your asking questions after lights out — not just a few and not just easy ones. In fact by the time you were about half of Elder offspring’s age the questions often delved into the realm of philosophy, which is not MY area of expertise. I often would get to the point of ending the conversation for the evening with “I don’t know that yet.”

    Good luck.

  2. #2 LP
    March 21, 2008

    My mother claims I used to do this too, except it was always first thing in the morning. This was either a delaying tactic to avoid getting up, or a result of the information processing and random connection-making that goes on during sleep, or both.

    So have you talked with EO about the 2 different kinds of tickling, and how they (may have) evolved along totally different pathways?

  3. #3 idlemind
    March 21, 2008

    So have you talked with EO about the 2 different kinds of tickling, and how they (may have) evolved along totally different pathways?

    No fair posting a comment like that without providing a link!

  4. #4 Susan B.
    March 21, 2008

    I would guess the number of nerve endings would be an artifact of our ape ancestry, since a lot of apes and monkeys use their feet as extra hands.

  5. #5 AK
    March 22, 2008

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knismesis_and_gargalesis

    No fair posting a comment like that without providing a link!

  6. #6 Alan Kellogg
    March 22, 2008

    Funny thing, elephants have very thick skin, but they are very ticklish animals. How we react to touch depends on how we’re touched, and why. Tickling, really, is a form of flirtation, and a form of play. It’s the tickler telling the ticklee he’s friendly, and the ticklee telling the tickler, I trust you.

    It’s an invitation to play, and an invitation to sex. It’s a way of bonding and of reinforcing those bonds. Most of all it’s fun. Humans are ticklish, gorillas are ticklish, rats are ticklish. I’ll bet even tasmanian devils and komodo dragons are ticklish, for both are known to bond with their human keepers. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that any animal capable of social interaction is ticklish.

    I wonder, when land iguanas are tickled what does their laughter sound like?

  7. #7 Gillian
    March 22, 2008

    That was an interesting conversation. Both of you are scientists! =)

  8. #8 Clear Menser
    March 25, 2008

    Yes, social animals are ticklish. Here’s a recent video about hypersonic rat laughter:
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=j-admRGFVNM

  9. #9 KeithB
    March 28, 2008

    Band Name! “hypersonic rat laughter”

  10. #10 Some Rain
    April 4, 2008

    Do you ever suspect that kids save their best questions for just before “goodnight” as a delaying tactic?

    Suspect! I know they do — or did in my case. I vividly remember scouring my brain for complex, open-ended questions (or ones with lengthy answers) to ask my mother as she was tucking me into bed, and frantically blurting out whichever one came to mind first as she tried to head out the door. Note that this was often after she’d already read me a chapter from whatever book we were reading and gone through the (requested by me) ritual of telling me everything that was happening the following day. She was very patient!

    Why did I do it? It was comforting and soothing having her there, telling me interesting things and giving me all her attention. As a child, I also found the time between lights-out and when I actually fell asleep to be when all my anxieties would bubble up to the top of my mind. I think I secretly hoped to avoid this by falling peacefully asleep listening to my mother describing how bees make honey or why we have high tides or…