Dear Matthew Alice:
"I thought I would die laughing." When something makes you laugh so hard you can't breathe, is there a chance you'll never stop? Is this unhealthy?
-- M., San Diego
Well, A.M., let me nip your little reign of terror in the bud by saying there is nothing inherently deadly in the tickling itself. S'matter of fact, I'd think the tickler is in greater danger than the ticklees-- once they catch up with you anyway. Naturally science knows next to nothing about tickling. Far as they can tell, it's a modified pain or pressure response. The sensory nerves in the outermost skin layer are sensitive to light pressure, which the brain interprets as an itch or tickling sensation. The real agony of tickling is in the out-of-control feeling induced in the ticklee when he can't sock the tickler in the eye and get him to stop.
But say you get one of your victims to laugh hysterically. Can he die of laughter, secondary to the tickling? (Let's see CSI figure that one out in the lab.) Actually, laughter gets pretty good press, touted as a cheap, sure cure for what ails you in its invigorating, mood-enhancing, and stress-reducing properties. Hospitals have even had formal laughter therapy programs for patients experiencing problems with chronic pain or insomnia. Maybe one day, doctors will tell us to take two jokes and call them in the morning.
When you reduce laughter to its visceral components, it doesn't sound much like a cure-all. Chortles and guffaws start in your diaphragm, which goes into spasms. Your abs and chest muscles contract and relax, expanding your rib cage and lungs to take in large volumes of oxygen and expel CO2. Your heart beats harder to keep up with the increased metabolism, your blood pressure rises, pupils dilate, and you get a shot of adrenalin. Not too different from a stress response, actually. But on the up side, you get an increased flow of oxygenated blood; there's isometric benefits of muscle contraction in face, trunk, and extremities; and our old friends, the pleasure-inducing endorphins flood your brain.
But is there a chance you could die from laughing too much? To read the literature on the subject, you wouldn't think so. But the diligent and far-flung Matthew Alice staff has come up with two unusual anecdotes that would indicate otherwise. One contributor to a national magazine, in a confessional article told of how, when he laughs, his diaphragm occasionally "locks" (as he puts it) and he is unable to inhale. Eventually, the incident passes, and he's fine. He attributes it to a form of hysteria. The only connection here between laughter and death is the fact that he had one of these seizures while driving, and in the resulting accident he was saved only by his seat belt.
Anecdote number two concerns the late Alexander Mitchell of King's Lynn, England. On the fateful evening, Alexander and his wife settled in to watch his favorite TV show, The Goodies. One of the comedy sketches, about a Scotsman fighting his bagpipes in a takeoff of the martial arts, struck him as so funny that he laughed nonstop for 25 minutes, keeled over, and died. His wife, good sport that she is, said later that she would write to the creators of the show and thank them for making Alexander's last moments so happy. Speculation is that he had underlying cardiac or circulatory problems.