Working at the Institute did have its advantages. That was hard for me to appreciate at the time, though. The pay was lousy, job security was non-existent, being as it was, entirely grant-dependant, and the people I worked with were, quite frankly, weird. But the Kinsey Institute of Behavioral Sciences, located smack dab in the heart of the UC Berkeley campus, was a dream come true for me in one respect.
You see, I'm into tickling. A strange subject to devote oneself to you might think. Yet I received nearly 75 thousand dollars a year to conduct my research. Most of it came from the National Science Foundation, but a goodly portion was funded by the Department of Defense, The Pentagon, a fact which had sorely puzzled me at the time. From this amount came lab equipment, computer time, my salary (a painfully small percentage), subscriptions to relevant scholarly journals and such, but a large part went to pay the test subjects I used. Let me tell you right now, they earned every penny!
Tickling and ticklishness has fascinated me all my life (just ask my poor kid brother). I mean, why should a person be ticklish at all? What purpose does it serve in our physiological make-up, and in the grand evolutionary scheme of things? Why does tickling elicit laughter, even when exceedingly unpleasant? Why not screaming or crying (though these last two certainly can accompany prolonged tickling)? These are questions I often asked myself, even as a child.
At the Institute I got paid to tickle people. My budget, as I have said, included a substantial sum used to pay the numerous test subjects I used. The student body at Berkeley supplied by far the great majority of them. I ran an ad in the campus newspaper every day:
Now seventy five bucks is a fortune to a poor, starving student. I got several applicants each day and so I could afford to be choosy. Typically an applicant would call and I'd tell him to come to the Institute to fill out a questionnaire. If the application looked good (or the applicant!) I'd bring him into my lab to take a picture. He'd take his shirt off and I'd take a picture of him with his arms raised, hands resting on top of his head. Then I attached the picture to the application and filed it. Only after I called someone back for a session was he paid the seventy five dollars.
I shall tell you about one test subject in particular. his name was Michael and he seemed particularly hard-up for cash. He was 19, a sophomore in political science, and BEAUTIFUL! I struggled valiantly to retain my veneer of clinical detachment as he shyly pulled of his shirt in in the privacy of my office. I tried to devote all of my attention to his application while he sat on the edge of my examination table, waiting. I didn't want to seem too eager.
He was obviously nervous as he sat there bare-chested. He had auburn hair and tan skin. His application was even more promising. In answer to the question regarding degree of ticklishness, he marked the highest level: EXTREMELY ticklish. He numbered the degree of ticklishness of the various parts of his body like so: Armpits 10, Ribs 9, Feet 8, Knees 7, and on down.
I set the clipboard down. "Why don't you step over there so I can take a picture of you." I flashed my friendliest smile and motioned to one wall of the office where I had set up a camera and a couple of lights. He stood in front of the wall, arms crossed in front of him, while I turned on the lights and loaded film into the camera.
"Now raise your arms and put your hands on your head, that's right, good." His level-10 ticklish armpits were a tickler's dream come true. They were hairy. Very, very hairy. His armpit hair choked his deep, muscled pits like a forest, it was almost jet black, much darker than the auburn hair on his head. I had seen it poking out from his short sleeves every time he raised his arms, even before he bagan unbuttoning his shirt. And beneath all of that marvellous hair his underarm skin was white, contrasting sharply with the overall tan of the rest of his body. I had images of him laying out on some sunny beach, relaxed, yet with arms clamped at his side instead of stretched out over his head, ever fearful that his exposed underarms would prove too irresistable a target to some wicked passerby who just might reach down and tickle them! The skin looked very sensitive, probably not used to being touched. I fully intended to touch them a great deal!
"Okay, thanks. Now if you could take off your shoes and socks and get one more picture we'll be all through here for today." My voice broke on the last word. I couldn't seem to swallow. He sat down on a chair and began untying his shoes.
"I don't understand," he said, puzzled. "Why do you need pictures of my *feet*?" He started pulling off his socks.
"I need to map precise areas of ticklishness."
"H-how...how do you d-do that?" He was stuttering all of the sudden. Interesting.
"Well, I computerize the image, superimpose a grid onto that image and record electrical brain activity in response to specific stimulus applied to each region on the grid." I set a chair in front of him and lifted his legs onto it so that the soles of his feet faced directly into the camera. "Then I take the rather complex waveform, have the computer do a fourier analysis on it to isolate the separate elements, then compare those elements to those of all of my other test subjects."
"You're going to tickle my feet?"
"Well, in a word... er, yes. Smile!" I took the picture.
"Uh... I-I'm su-sorry. I don't think I can g-go thu-through with this." He got off the chair and grabbed his shirt. "I just can't deal with that."
"What? What do you mean?" I almost dropped my clipboard.
He was hurriedly pulling on his shoes. "I'm s-sorry to wuh-waste your t-time. I can't s-stand being tickled. I'm sorry. Keep your s-seventy five dollars."
"Seventy five dollars? Did the ad say seventy five dollars? You get a HUNDRED and seventy five dollars for this." I silently thanked my quick mind. "There must have been a mistake in the paper. I'll have to phone them tomorrow."
"A hundred and seventy five? I'll have to think about it." He grabbed his jacket and walked to the door. "T-tickle my f-feet... I don't think I can handle that."
"Of course you can." I opened the door for him. "I'll call you Thursday after the computer simulations are done and set up an appointment. Bye!"
I closed the door behind him. Leaning back against it I let out a heavy sigh. My knees were weak but I stood up again and went to develop the film.
I waited till Friday to call. I really wanted to seem nonchalant about this. For my research strictly half of my test subjects were male. Of the women, most weren't even the least bit ticklish. But the screams that came from my lab when I "tested" the men ... aaah.
The aim of my research was, partly, to discover the origins of ticklishness and, specifically, to discover what differentiates a ticklish person from one who is not.
There are many popular theories to explain the first question. One says it's an evolutionary reflex to protect humans from dangerous insects and arachnids which flourished in the prehistoric jungles, much the same as the reflex in horses that makes their haunches twitch and tails slap at flies. This might be a contributing factor but is wholly inadequate to explain why we're most ticklish under the arms or on the soles of the feet, places where insects are *least* likely to land.
The theory I favor is that ticklishness evolved as a *play* reflex, like that in kittens or puppies. An essential reflex, it teaches an animal, while young, to defend itself and to fight competitors, defending vulnerable spots such as sides and ribs where a slashing claw might damage vital organs.
Any theory such as this is impossible to prove. One can only gather evidence to support it. As a preliminary to my research I recorded literally days of EEG's from kittens while playing. Not an easy task, I assure you. It's quite difficult to induce kittens to play with one another while connected to hundreds of feet of wires all attached to a myriad of electrodes implanted directly into the brain. Nonetheless, I somehow managed to glean two or three hours of usable data.
Much easier to answer is the second question: Why are some of us ticklish and others not? Is it merely a matter of temperment or is there some measurable physiological difference? Children who stutter are 20 times more likely to be ticklish than those who do not. My evidence at that time seemed to indicate that there is a particular region of the brain (adjacent to the region suspected to be responsible for stuttering!) which inhibits ticklishness as a person grows older, or, as the case may be, fails to do so. If this proves to be the case it would be a natural step to develop a method by which micro currents could be introduced into the brain in such a way as to neutralize this "tickle-inhibitor" effectively rendering anyone not only ticklish, but EXTREMELY ticklish.
Anyway, as I was saying, I tried to seem casual as I spoke to him over the telephone. It wasn't easy. I've rarely had somebody who was as ticklish as he claimed to be for a test subject. It would be fantastic for my research (I fully expected to find that characteristic 14.7 KHz ripple put out by the "inhibitor" almost entirely missing from the fourier analysis of his EEG) but even more, it was going to be HOT!
He said she had thought it over and had finally decided to go through with it. I could almost *hear* the landlord banging on his door demanding the rent. So I set up an appointment for Monday afternoon and then proceeded to have a very long weekend.
"Hello, Michael, come in." I beamed my brightest smile (being careful to first remove all lecherous elements from it) and shook his hand vigorously. "Let me take your jacket." He didn't look at me but rather continued to stare at the floor. "I really want to thank you for agreeing to help me out like this. This research requires a LOT of test subjects ... you should relax. This won't take long."
He looked up from the floor and forced a smile, following me to the door of my lab. I unlocked it and led him into the sound-proof room, a veritable christmas tree of flashing lights and clicking, beeping sounds. Along one wall was the mainframe computer (shared by everyone at the institute) along another, medical monitoring equipment: EEG's, EKG's, machines for analysing blood chemistry, galvanic monitors to record electrical conductivity of the skin. Equipment choked the periphery of the lab.
But in the center of the room was the tickle-table. It was this table onto which Michael locked his gaze, eyes slowly growing wide. Shiny, stainless steel and black leather padding, sturdy leather straps for the wrists, elbows, ankles, knees and upper thighs, it positively dazzled in the bright lights of the lab. He stopped, frozen at the door.
Suddenly fearful he would bolt after all, I walked quickly to the desk drawer, unlocked it and pulled an envelope out. "I hope you don't mind if I pay you in cash," I said as I wielded the wad of twenties. "One hundred and seventy five dollars. Here you go." I counted it into his hand.
He took another step forward into the lab and stopped again. "Come on, come on," I thought to myself.
"What do you want me to do?" he said, finally. I smiled. The battle was won.
"Oh, if you could just sit there on the table. I need to calibrate the instruments." The instruments were already calibrated. What I needed was to relax him some more. I turned to the EEG machine and began recalibrating it, all the while chattering lightly about sports, politics, school, anything. I actually got him to talk about himself, his school work, and once he even laughed. THAT was the moment.
"Okay, all ready. Now could you take of your shoes, socks and shirt?" His smiled faded. I grinned, went to another machine and pretended to do something. When I turned around again, he was ready.
"If you could just lie back on the table... I'm sorry about the restraints, but a lot of movement could interfere with the data."
He didn't move for about half a minute, then, slowly, he complied, lying back onto the black leather padding. I walked around to the head of the table, gently took a hold of one wrist and pulled it above his head, then tied it securly to the stainless steel extension with the leather strap. I did the same with the other arm, then next secured his hairy ankles. Only after he was completely helpless did I attach the other straps to knees, upper thighs just below the crotch, and the elbows. They were to minimize excessive struggling and make him easier to tickle. I also had a metal frame which fit into a notch in the table over his feet. It clamped around the heel and each toe, keeping his feet almost completely motionless.
His head was raised, watching everything I did to his feet. He had a grimmacing, helpless sort of smile while I worked with his toes, but I don't think it was because he was happy.
"I don't think I can go through with this," he said with a voice suddenly high-pitched and cracking.
"Of course you can. It'll be over before you know it."
He was spead-eagled and helpless. I turned a small adjustment wheel at the extensions for his arms, lengthening them. This stretched his body, as if on a rack, making his skin taut, the hollows of his armpits deepen.
"Comfy?" I asked.
"Uh, no," he answered. I laughed as if at a joke and began attaching wires to his head and slipped an EKG patch below his left nipple. I turned on the various video equipment which would record the whole session, and then I got out my case.
To me, the case was the most valuable piece of equipment in the lab. I set it on a small metal table which I wheeled down into position at the foot of the table right next to his immobilized feet, then I sat down on a chair facing his exposed soles. I opened the case and looked lovingly at my assortment, all neatly laid out on black velvet, of feathers, vibrators, and assorted brushes. All of my tickling accessories accumulated over the years. Then I pulled out my pride and joy, my finest feather. It was long and white, just stiff enough, with a thin, pin-point tip with just enough flexibility.
Michael's eyes widened with horror as I held it up in the air. His feet began wiggling, an almost imperceptible movement, so tightly were his toes bound, stretched back. "We'll start with the soles of your feet." I smiled and brought the feather slowly into contact with his soft, sensitve sole.
"No, NO! Don't do it... PLEASE!!" he screamed. He started pulling at the straps about his wrists and squirming as much as he could under his bonds. It didn't do him the least bit of good. He was totally helpless. Then I began moving the feather, slowly, very slowly down the sole of his foot, then up again, dragging the soft tip over the white, sensitive skin.
"NOOOOO!! AH HA HA HA HA HA HA ha ha hahaha....." he started laughing, high-pitched and hysterical, a strained, grimacing smile on his previously quiet, shy face. The EEG strip-chart recorder continued spitting out its white tongue of paper, a meaningless scribble of myriad black lines oozing out with it.
I took another feather, twin of the first, and pulled it up and down along his other sole. "OH NOOO! AAAAAH HA HA HAHAHA ..." he screamed anew as he realized I was now tickling both bare soles at once, dragging my evil feathers slowly back and forth across the underside of his immobilized toes, in opposite directions, then down to his arches, brushing the feather tips there, first back and forth, then up and down, then swirling around in slow, lazy circles inside of the arches of his soles, the skin stretched tight as a drum.
When I pulled out still more feathers and began inserting them then pulling them out from between his splayed out toes, over and over and over again, sometimes spinning them between my two fingers, his horror at what was being done to his bare feet grew still more "OOOOOH, NOT THAT!!!! AHHHHH HA HA HA HA...NOT BETWEEN THE TOES!!! AAAAH NOT THAT!!! AH HA HA HA HAHAHA ..." He was shaking his head back and forth violently. His mouth stretched open in a hysterical rictus of mad laughter.
"Just hold on!" I almost had to shout over the screaming laughter. "I only need 15 or 20 minutes more of this for the computer." I laughed and continued tickling his feet.
Twenty Minutes??!!! "NOOOOOOOOO...HA HA HA HA HAhahaha... gasp... HA HA HA HA!!!" He couldn't stand it, couldn't catch his breath. I discarded the feathers and brought my fingertips to bear against his arches, skitcha skitcha skitcha, like a spider, up and down the bare flesh of his soles, again and again, tickling his feet while he screamed helpless, hysterical laughter for twenty, long, horrible minutes.
When I finally stopped, his head sagged to one side and the short bangs of his auburn hair was plastered to his forehead, sweaty. His chest heaved up and down, trying to catch a breath. I hadn't allowed him to catch one for over ten minutes.
"No more... please.. I..I can't take it... let me loose... I beg you, pleeeease... " he gasped, exhausted.
"What?" I laughed. "That was just the preliminary. This session is supposed to be for an hour and a half. It's all in the release you signed."
"Don't care... let me loose... I changed my mind."
"It's a little late for that now... Let's see, I think the underarms are next on my list." I smiled, this time letting all the wickedness I could muster shine through. I advanced on his stretched out armpits, my index fingers extended and wriggling menacingly.
He suddenly didn't seem to be out of breath any more. His eyes and mouth opened wide and he pulled at his restraints again, desperately.
"Not my armpits! Not my armpits! Please! Not my armpits!" He began to giggle helplessly as I brought my fingers closer, very, very slowly, without actually touching him. This part was important. Some people can be tickled without any physical contact. Just the threat of tickling can send them into hysterics. I needed to see if his brainwave pattern showed any appreciable difference.
"Aaah, is poor baby's underarms sensitive?" I asked, pouting. My wriggling index fingers drew closer, almost touching the dark hairy forest inside. I wanted to draw this out as long as possible.
He stared at an approaching finger, moving his head, almost as if trying to nudge the hand away with his chin, or, if possible, to bite it.
"No, ha ha ha ha ha, don't... ha ha... please don't... not under my arms... ha ha ha... not there ... ha ha ha." He had a big smile on his face and was giggling continuously. I started moving my fingers in big circles over his hairy pits and this started him laughing harder. He couldn't stop. I hadn't even touched him, yet he couldn't stop laughing.
By the time I started worming in the hollows under his arms with my fingers, he was fully hysterical. No longer in control he let out a big, long scream before laughter took him over completely. A deeper, constant laughter, one quick gasp for air, then another prolonged fit of laughter. I hit a switch on the motorized tickle table which stretched his arms even more tightly over his head. I pulled out a stiffer pair of feathers, the ones I use to "deal" with an exceptionally hairy pair of pits, and inserted them into his hairy tickle pockets, penetrating down into the soft, white flesh, and stroking vigorously.
I chose to use his open armpits for a long, drawn-out, merciless game of cootchy coo. With index fingers pointed and ready, a big grin on my face, I called out "Cootchy cootchy coo!!" and poked my fingers into his soft armpit flesh, wiggled three times, withdrew my fingers, shouted "Cootchy cootchy coo!" again, and bored my fingers into his pits, over and over and over, for nearly an hour. Each time I did this, he'd scream. Sometimes I'd shout cootchy coo! and lunge at his pits without actually touching him, and he'd still scream and begin laughing helplessly. To bring my game to a close I cried cootchy coo one more time, drilled my fingers into his armpits and began wiggling and wiggling them, non-stop. "AAAAH HA HA HA HA HAAAAA ..." he screamed, her eyes squeezed shut as he realized the game had taken a horrible turn. Up and down his armpits my poking, drilling fingers roamed. Up to just below his straining arm muscles, then wiggling on down to the smooth, tender hollow just above his ribcage, I poked and wormed, finally bringing all of my torturous fingers into play. His laughter increased in intensity, changed it's timber from a lower, throatier sound to a high-pitched, insane shriek. I had to stop, finally, when my instruments indicated it was too dangerous to continue.
He was drenched in sweat. It formed a glossy sheen on his bare skin. Little rivlets leaked from his armpits.
"Enough... " He still could not catch his breath. Not surprising. An hour of non-stop hysterical screaming laughter left his blood oxygen level low and would be several minutes returning to normal. "Please... no more. Oh God, I'm BEGGING you... please..." It was barely a whisper.
"I can't stop now," I said, rolling up my shirt sleeves. "You take a few minutes to rest. Here's some water." I offered him the straw to a water bottle. He refused.
"No... let me up NOW... I'm through." Anger crept into his voice now that he had regained some strength.
I sat down in my chair. "That was only superficial stimulation. We still have to conduct tests in deep-muscle stimulation." I reached down and began turning a lever set into the base of the tickle-table. This caused it to bend up in the middle, the ends dropping slightly. This in turn forced Michael's chest cavity to extend upward, causing every rib to protrude in exquisite detail. I stood up, hitched up a leg and sat on the table, straddling Michael about his waist. I layed my hands on his hyper-extended rib cage, palms flat, fingers extended. He took short, panicky breaths and his eyes widened once again as he understood just what I meant to do to him.
"Now I'm going to tickle your ribs for the rest of the session. I'm afraid I'm going to have to dig in quite a bit, it might be a bit more uncomfortable, but just hang in there. It'll all be over in another hour."
"NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" he screamed again and shook his head, then began laughing, shaking his head and begging me not to all at the same time. I hadn't even started.
"Cootchy cootchy coo," my smile swelled into a wicked grin as I dug into his ribs and his screaming laughter began again.
I was called onto the carpet and given the boot for that one. The poor kid had to drop out of school and was being treated for nervous exhaustion. His stutter, which years of speech therapy had cured long before, had returned with a vengeance, making him almost unintelligible. Okay, so maybe I went a little overboard. But the experience provided me with the last data I needed to confirm my hypothesis and allowed me to get where I am today.
Yes, at the Pentagon.
At this very moment, in the room next door, are twenty state of the art tickle tables, and strapped into those tables are twenty, shirtless, barefoot privates fresh out of the corps. Tickling is the new interrogation technique of the nineties. Our country must be ready to employ it, develop it and defend against it. The group of young men next door were culled as the twenty LEAST ticklish men in the nation's armed forces. And this group... Ah, this group of beautiful male soldiers has been wired with my new tickle-inducer. When those fingernails begin raking across their bared soles, and fingertips begin to pinch like claws into the flesh of their tender sides they are in for a new, terrifying, horrible experience and I can't wait to see their twenty horrified, laughing young faces. Now if you will excuse me ... duty calls.