Arm Tickling: The mystery of subconscious self-soothing by James Collector

I did it again last night. When the lights went out, lying in bed, both my arms raised toward the ceiling.

Photo by I.am_nah on Unsplash

My right hand began to gently graze my left arm, then vice versus. It’s a slow, repetitive motion, this “arm tickling” habit of mine.  I was almost completely unaware of it, until recently.

My partner attributes this behavior to subconscious self-soothing. She says it happens a few nights a week. Harmless enough—except the brushing noise. Sometimes, she firmly lowers my arms. Sometimes, it starts again. My subconscious doesn’t give up so easily.

When I was a boy, my mother would rub my back to help me fall asleep. It felt good; it still feels good. But is it necessary? Do I need self-soothing so much that the responsibility is left to my subconscious?

At first, my partner’s observations of my somnolent behavior made me uneasy. It felt embarrassing to be informed about my own actions. There is a something unnerving in the realization that my conscious self, I, James Collector, is not the only one driving this body.

At the same time, I have to marvel at the benevolence of my subconscious. By tickling my arms at night, my subconscious is taking care of me—or us. To know that somewhere deep inside, there is a tendency toward self-care, is comforting.

At the same time, the necessity of subconscious self-soothing also suggests that my conscious mind may be pushing itself too hard. As soon as the lights go out and my ego is off-duty, my subconscious steps in and soothes. My mind has a mind of its own.

Psychologists often use a phrase: “Making the unconscious conscious” which describes the process of becoming aware of latent emotions and thoughts. The question is whether my arm tickling is a subconscious or unconscious behavior. Examples of subconscious behavior include breathing and typing without looking. Examples of unconscious behavior include the Freudian slip or other mental “knee-jerk” reactions such as bias or racism. So my arm tickling behavior seems to be subconscious, not unconscious.

To trust something we do not understand is to have faith. Faith in the subconscious – well, that’s not a message we hear often. Instead, my research on this behavior turned up mostly alarmist concerns. For example, a post on reddit read: “I often wake up finding myself lightly brushing my fingers up and down my arm. No reason, but it feels really nice. My husband noted I did it this morning while dead asleep as well. I am just worried this is some parasomnia and it means there is some malfunction in my brain…”

For the record, parasomnia is a “sleep disorder” which usually denotes strange and self-destructive behavior while sleeping. Why the author of this post seemed to overlook the benevolent self-care of the behavior and, jump to the conclusion of a sleep disorder, I cannot say. Perhaps it’s related to a general suspicion and distrust of the unknown, especially when the unknown dwells within us.

Our society tends to regard the subconscious as a sort of wild, untamed element beyond our control which could be dangerous if not understood. The subconscious is often blamed for “animalistic” desires. It is the source for bizarre artistic visions, a repository for demons, childhood trauma, etc. Basically, it is the dark closet of the mind. We expect skeletons to emerge. But in my case, a kind and gentle hand reaches out to caress me.

When I described the arm tickling mystery to one friend, he explained that an ancient yogic practice is to activate the meridian lines in the arms by tracing one’s hand down the inner arm and up the outer arm. Maybe you were a yoga master in some past life, he said. I laughed to think one person might be afraid of their own parasomnia while another might attribute the behavior to past life mastery.

Another friend, a psychologist, suggested that the arm tickling might be a trauma response. Did my raised arm resemble a gesture of setting a boundary, of pushing away? I pointed out that my wrists were usually quite limp, my arms outstretched like sensual noodles.

According to Stanford Health Care, sleep disorders involving abnormal behaviors during sleep are called parasomnias. These night time activities can occur at any age. The list includes sleep walking, sleep talking, sleep terrors, confusional arousals, REM behavior disorder, sleep paralysis, and nightmares.

None of these quite describes my benign arm tickling. However, I did experience “sleep terrors” around age 10. About an hour after going to bed, I would sleepwalk around the house with my eyes wide open, full of panic, terror, and dread. I could rarely recollect the incidents, even moments after awakening. Once, I woke up in a cold shower with my concerned parents looking at me like I had been possessed. These incidents were never explained, although research has shown that a predisposition to night terrors may be hereditary.

Recently, night terrors have been making the news with smart-phone footage of children crying and screaming. Thankfully, my parents never filmed me. Take my word for it: this is not a worthwhile Youtube search. Instead, try searching for this calming ASMR* video: “Nostalgic ASMR Triggers #5 | Back & Arm Tracing, Tickling, Tingly Rhymes.” ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, a tingling sensation often triggered by whispering. In this example, a British woman recites rhymes as she tickles another woman’s back and arms. The top comment is “Wow, I’m seven years old again.”

As you can see, my research opened up a strange lens on human nature. We spend about one third of our lives asleep and yet dreams and nocturnal behavior are still poorly understood. After weeks of research, I was no closer to understanding my arm tickling.

Another study  published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience focused on actual tickling during sleep (rather than caressing). The scientific paper used the following quote from Charles Darwin: “… from the fact that a child can hardly tickle itself, or in a much less degree than when tickled by another person, it seems the precise point to be touched must not be known…”

The study goes on to conclude: “Our results, though highly preliminary, indicate that in the special case of lucid control dreams, the difference between self-tickling and being tickled by another is obliterated, with both self- and other produced tickles receiving similar ratings as self-tickling during wakefulness. This leads us to the speculative conclusion that in lucid control dreams, sensory attenuation for self-produced tickles spreads to those produced by non-self dream characters.”

In other words, we cannot tickle ourselves while awake yet somehow we can while asleep.

A somatic therapist might ask: “What is the hand doing? Caressing the arm. And what is the arm doing? Being caressed by the hand.” Therefore, part of me wants to caress while another part wants to be caressed. Plus, there is a part of me that seems to know when to self-sooth—while another part of me does not know but sincerely wants to understand.

Until I found an “answer,” I decided to keep the search to myself. As benign as the arm tickling is, it’s vulnerable to share. I’m a grown man who needs to be caressed—I at least want to know why before I broadcast the subject to my friends and family. Yet after months, I felt stuck. I ended up mentioning this essay to my mom over the phone. She laughed and said, “I used to do that too. Both my arms would go straight up. Your father thought it was spooky.” She went on to explain that she hasn’t done it since retirement. Without a job at the health clinic and kids to take care of, she has less stress. The absence of subconscious arm tickling is a barometer of relaxation.

So is the behavior genetic? Or is it learned? She did tickle my back when I was a little boy. My partner and I joked about running a natural experiment on our own children some day. Tickle one and not the other. I joked that the one deprived of tickles will turn out a stress-case or even a criminal.

After months of research and contemplation, it seems safe to conclude that arm tickling is a form of self-soothing. How and when my subconscious decides to self-sooth remains a mystery. Perhaps it always will—how does one interrogate the subconscious?

Instead, the important question may be: why I am not consciously self-soothing? The list of stress factors in my life is probably somewhere around average for a 34-year old adult with a busy job, leadership responsibility, significant commute time, and anxiety about climate change. Maybe I should spend less time peering into the cloudy mirror of my subconscious and more time walking in nature, stretching, playing music, exercising. A hot bath and cup of tea—deliberate self-care rather than relying on subconscious self-soothing.

After all, if my subconscious is looking out for me, so should I.

This is a sample article from the Winter 2021 issue of Asylum [28.4].  Subscribe to Asylum Magazine.