In an age of deceptive advertising, clickbait YouTube video titles, and dishonest online dating profiles, it’s a blessed treat when a bit of online content delivers exactly what it promises. That’s the case with a Reddit post that shot up in popularity on /r/WTF this Wednesday. The post, entitled, “Guy passes out from tickling,” is a refreshing bit of honesty and transparency in this day and age, what with anti-vaxx bots and counterfeit pharmaceuticals circulating. And it seems that redditors found it satisfying, too: As of this article’s publication, “Guy passes out from tickling” has received 371 comments and over 3,900 upvotes.
In the video, two people hold down a third person while they tickle him. He struggles for a bit, but he quickly goes limp. The video raises some obvious questions, like, Did he let them do this? and almost as importantly, How is this possible? Unfortunately, it does not seem to answer them. But Inverse has some insight. First, here’s the Reddit post:
It’s uncomfortable to watch, but that’s what /r/WTF is all about.
This post is actually a small snippet of an older video, a viral classic from 2012 that’s accumulated over 1.5 million views. In the original video, we’re told that the guy’s name is Larry Benjamin, and that he has volunteered to demonstrate his bizarre talent: He passes out after 10 seconds of tickling.
This video answers the question of consent, which is a huge relief. But now that we know we’re not watching some kind of tickle snuff film, let’s look at the scientific question: Why does he pass out?
In short, he may be passing out from oxygen deprivation — with all that laughing and not enough inhaling, the blood vessels in the brain constrict as he fights to get away. It’s also possible, though, that Benjamin’s experience is akin to shock, like when someone’s consciousness recoils after a traumatic injury. People have been known to experience shock after seeing their own blood or realizing the true extent of an injury, a phenomenon that evolutionary psychologists suspect developed to help the body go into a lower-energy state to keep from pumping all the blood out of a wound. Benjamin isn’t wounded, but his body registers the tickling as distress.
When you’re being tickled, your body is expressing two seemingly opposite reactions: pleasure and discomfort. Anyone who’s ever been tickled knows that behind the laughter is desperation, a feeling that everything is toppling down, an inability to comprehend the world beyond the present moment.
It’s entirely likely that Benjamin is experiencing that feeling, and as a way to protect itself, his body goes into a momentary shock, shutting itself down to prevent further harm.
To understand why, it’s important to note that there are two distinct types of tickling: gargalesis and knismesis. Knismesis is the sensation you get when a fly lands on you and you flinch. It’s a signal that something outside your body is interacting with your body. Gargalesis, on the other hand, is what happens when you’re being tickled hard, and it induces laughter.
In a 2013 study, a team of researchers at the University of Tübingen in Germany found that the brain exhibits connectivity between similar areas in response to both a funny joke and to tickling, but we all know that those experiences are vastly different.
The authors of the 2013 study suspect that gargalesis is at least partly the evolutionary result of a submission response to an aggressor. The idea is that if you’re laughing, your attacker will be less inclined to continue the attack. The fact that many ticklish spots are especially vulnerable if attacked — the neck, the abdomen, the armpits — lends some credence to this idea. So when Benjamin’s friends held him down and tickled him, even though he gave them permission, this survival instinct kicked in and he laughed himself into unconsciousness.
Fortunately, it seems that laughter alone can’t kill you, as IO9 reported that in the rare cases that people laughed themselves to death, they had underlying health conditions. But you may not know whether you have such a condition until it’s too late, so it’s probably best not to let someone tickle you until you pass out.