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Laugh it up: 'Tickle spa' opens in Spain

A spa for tickling? Why, the very idea is just laughable.
A spa for tickling? Why, the very idea is just laughable.Glow Images / Getty Images/Glowimages

Hahaha -- ahhhh. Is the world ready for tickle therapy?  That's the idea behind a new Spanish spa -- owner of which claims it's the world's first "tickle spa."

Here's how TIME's Lisa Abend describes the experience:

Much like at any other day spa, the treatment takes place in a darkened room, with soothing music playing and a hint of incense tingeing the air. The client disrobes, puts on a pair of crinkly paper panties and lies facedown on the table. And then the tickling — first with fingertips drawn along the body, then a feather — begins. A 30-minute session costs €25 ($35); for an hour, the price is €45 ($60).

Abend ended up enjoying the experience, even going so far as to call it relaxing. As tickle therapist Lourdes Nieto told the magazine, the experience is gentle enough for even the very ticklish among us. "We use a variety of strokes. If someone is super-ticklish, we'll press harder. The idea is to relax them, not stress them out."

This is an idea that flummoxes neuroscientist Robert R. Provine.

"Tickling someone is going to be arousing, not relaxing," says Provine, who works in the department of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. As he points out, conventional massage therapists spend their training specifically learning how not to tickle their clients. "Usually, people seeking a massage are seeking relaxation. Tickle is getting your blood pressure and heart rate up."

Provine, author of the book "Laughter: An Investigation," which includes an entire chapter focusing on tickling, adds: "The odd thing about it is that you’re involving strangers in what’s really a social process. If you consider who you tickle, and who tickles you -- they’re all people you know, and so strangers are really not part of it."

Tickling is really all about communication. It's possible, of course, that that might be what draws clients to the Spanish tickle spa -- they might be seeking contact and communication with another person. For kids, tickling can be a way of initiating play. And, perhaps obviously, for adults, there's a strong link between tickling and sex. Handily, Provine once conducted a survey asking people why they tickled others -- most often, the reason was to show affection.

In fact, tickling one of our first methods of communication, between babies and mothers: "Mothers will touch and tickle the baby, and the baby will smile and laugh," Provine says, pointing out that this type of communication happens before a child even has language.

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According to Provine, that idea helps explain why tickling can be so unpleasant. It's fun when it's playful, or part of a give-and-take -- but when you're powerless to stop it, it stops being fun. (Think your jerk older brother pinning you down and tickling you until you can't breathe.)

But we couldn't let him off the phone without asking him one of the questions you've asked us on our Facebook page -- why can't you tickle yourself? Well, think about it: There’s a difference between reaching out and touching someone and someone reaching out and touching you. Your nervous system does you the great favor of canceling out what Provine calls "self-produced stimulation."

"If you didn’t do this, you’d constantly be startling yourself," he explains. As it turns out, "tickle is at the very root the computation of self and others -- what’s me and what’s not me."

Follow health writer Melissa Dahl on Twitter: @melissadahl.