Here Is a Man Tickling Rats for Science

By

Let’s be honest: This has been a bad week. Distractions are in order. And the easiest way to find a distraction, usually, is to —

Oh, look — here is a man tickling some rats:

Eric Boodman of Stat News explains:

In a study published Thursday in Science, [Shimpei] Ishiyama and his adviser, Michael Brecht, not only found that rats squeaked and jumped with pleasure when tickled on their backs and bellies, but also that these signs of joy changed according to the rodents’ moods. And, for the first time, they pinpointed a cluster of neurons that makes this sensation so powerful that it causes an individual being tickled to lose control … “Here’s the problem in a nutshell, and it’s a little philosophical,” Burgdorf told STAT. “In order for us to function, we have to ignore about 90 percent of our sensory information. We have to process only the important stimuli. What the brain is doing is saying this tickling is important, and I’m going to be able to discriminate this kind of stimulation from other kinds of stimulation.”

Here’s how mood affected the rats’ behavior: When Ishayama put the rats in a “tickle box” he constructed for them so he could tickle them while measuring their brainwaves (aw), and they recognized his hand wasn’t a threat but rather a playmate (aw), they’d freak out with excitement, vocalizing with joy when his hand showed up (aw), and their brain showed an imprint of this reaction. “But when he put them in a stressful situation — balancing them on a small platform with their nocturnal faces blinded by a bright light — they no longer reacted to the tickling, either in their behavior or in their brain activity.”

In other words, the stressful situation made them realize that now isn’t the time for play, since there could be something threatening afoot. This is some cute science at a time we needed it most.