Quirks & Quarks

The toes of foot painters are mapped in the brain as if they were fingers

Brain scans reveal that these artists have large amounts of neural tissue devoted to their toes

Brain scans reveal that these artists have large amounts of neural tissue devoted to their toes

Foot painter Peter Longstaff took part in the brain mapping study (Peter Longstaff)

Artists who paint with their feet can do amazing things on canvas, but what's going on in their brains is just as impressive. 

The human brain includes a very detailed and organized map of the body, and new research shows that this neural map — found in the somatosensory cortex — changes depending the user's life experience.  Typically larger amounts of neural tissue is devoted to parts of the body that are particularly sensitive to touch or dextrous. Maps of the face and the hands, in most people, take up large amounts of neural wiring and are very well organized.

On the other hand while there is a corresponding area in the brain for feet, there aren't well defined and organized areas for individual toes. Individual toe map regions have been identified in nonhuman primates because they can use their toes much like humans use fingers. 

This got scientists - including Harriet Dempsey-Jones, a postdoctoral researcher in Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London in England - wondering what happens in the brain of humans who can use their toes as skillfully as fingers. To answer this question, Dempsey-Jones and her colleagues approached two extraordinary people. 

Foot painter Tom Yendell (Tom Yendell)

'Extreme' foot users

Peter Longstaff and Tom Yendell are both artists living in the U.K., and both paint exclusively with their toes. The two men were born without arms as a result of exposure to the drug thalidomide.

Both Longstaff and Yendell rely on their feet for many things. They have developed incredible toe dexterity that allows them to use cutlery, write, use computer keyboards, and of course paint. Longstaff, a former pig farmer, was even able to inject his animals using a syringe with only his toes. 

Painting by foot painter Peter Longstaff (Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists)

Foot painters have unique brains

In an experiment, the two painters as well as a control group comprised of people born with two hands, all underwent fMRI scanning of the brain's body map area. In both foot painters, regions of the brain's foot map reacted to toes being touched, and maps specific to individual toes were seen. Those in the two-handed control group did not show any such map. The foot painter's feet were represented in the brain in the same way that hands are in people with two hands. This was not the case for the control group. 

Dempsey-Jones and her colleagues concluded that all people may have an innate capacity for creating these organized maps in the brain, for each toe. Most people's brains do not have these toe maps due to a lack of the essential experience needed to create them. The study also demonstrates an extreme example of the brain's natural plasticity. 

 

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