Relating Face to Face

Why you can’t tickle yourself, and others can (tickle you)

A profound question, yes!

You’d think there would be better things to ponder. But maybe this one is at the core of life itself.

Let’s start with an experiment.
Get a large book, something with a little heft (5-10 pounds will do).
Find a friend and ask her to extend her right arm with her hand palm up.
Place the book on her hand and have her hold it for about 10 seconds.
Then, quickly, without warning, take the book away.

Observe what happens.
Her right hand will jerk upwards briefly as the weight is removed.
No surprise here.

But wait.
Repeat the procedure.
Have her hold the book for 10 seconds.
But this time ask her to remove the book herself.

When she removes the book, her right hand will remain steady.

What happened?

When the book was removed suddenly, she was not anticipating it.
Neurologically, her sensory-motor system was not anticipating it.
And by not anticipating it, she could not prepare for it.
Her hand jerked up as her muscles remained flexed.
When she removed the book on her own, she was anticipating it, and her hand did not jerk up because her sensory-motor system anticipated and prepared her.
Her eyes and hands were coordinated so she had anticipatory control.

Food for thought? Definitely.

We humans are anticipatory beings, through and through. We need anticipatory control to scratch, groom, and care for ourselves. But we also need to get beyond our anticipations. We cannot tickle ourselves because our sensory-motor system gives us anticipatory control.

Try as we might, there is no thrill because our tickling fingers are connected to our skin in a sensory-motor loop in our body and brain, giving us anticipatory control of our experience. When we don’t have anticipatory control, we and our nervous systems are open for surprises.

The absence of anticipatory control is a necessary condition to be thrilled.

Now, consider this line of thought in terms of relationships, especially face-to-face interactions. When we are face to face, we have anticipatory control only of our own behaviors. As much as we might want to, we truly cannot read the mind of another.  But we do indeed anticipate what might be on that person’s mind in our assumptions, guesses, hunches. And, you know what? The other person is doing the same with us when we’re face to face. It all happens in microseconds. I guess what I’m getting at is that to be thrilled in life, we need to let ourselves be tickled, to be surprised, to be touched, moved, and even buffeted by forces that go beyond our own sensory-motor system.  Healthy relationships are inherently conflictual because they involve more than one person, more than one sensory-motor system. The separateness can foster disconnection, but it is also the necessary condition for us to deal with someone different than ourselves. Then thrill becomes possible. But our current anticipations are based on our past experiences. When those past experiences involve relationship trauma, face-to-face interactions can become torturous.

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