Modern lifestyle has got our feet pretty much wrapped up the whole day, as we shift from home slippers to formal shoes and sneakers. But in the effort to keep our feet clean and comfortable, are we losing out on an important head to toe connection? Are we actually designed to walk barefoot and pass on the benefits to the body and brain?
The human brain, rightly so, is the most complex part of our body. The cerebral cortex or the gray matter in the brain, the seat of intellectual activity, holds our memories and enables imagination, thinking, social interactions, and language skills, among many other things. It is this little part controlling our memory that gets very excited when our bare feet hit the ground.1
Your Brain Without Shoes On
So what causes this excitement? The soles of our feet house thousands of nerves that can potentially send information about our surroundings and how the body should act or react to the brain. Try it out for yourself and you’ll find that when barefoot you pick up so many more distinct cues about your environment, be it temperature, texture, pressure, or balance. Your body – your vision, your brain, and your muscles and bones, especially those supporting your feet and legs – is in complete sync. The brain is thus able to send more focused feedback to the rest of your body. The result – your movement pattern is more streamlined and you end up being more centered and coordinated. This even helps reduce the risk of running injuries when you get your gait and stride right.2
The brain–feet synergy is also seen in how the foot is represented in our motor and sensory cortex. As early as the 1950s, Canadian scientists applied various stimuli to parts of the brains and monitored the sensations and movements triggered by these. The responses were so specific that they were able to show how the cortex mapped different parts of our body, forming a “homunculus.” The foot and hand were represented more than some other parts, say chin and knee. Also, interestingly, the feet played a larger role in the sensory cortex than in the motor cortex. This piece of information aligns with what we actually experience – the rich nerve endings in the foot play a critical role as information receptors for the brain.3
So how do we use this to our benefit? The feet send numerous messages to the brain when barefoot and stimulated. The trick is to start early. And that’s what schools and educators are trying out extensively today – letting children learn and roam barefoot in a natural environment, allowing their soles to be massaged by uneven ground, enabling critical information to zip back and forth from foot to brain, and improving their body balance. The synaptic connections of the cortex, when stimulated in such a manner, paves the way for all of this.4
Running To Remember
What about when we do a little more, say running? Researchers in Florida recently tested out how the brain performs when we run barefoot. The runners were required to also step on small targets (poker chips) along the way. Post running, they found that those who ran barefoot performed much better on working memory tests, recalling and processing information better. The effort and attention needed to find the targets on the ground were found to be higher for the barefoot runners, resulting in a better working memory – and that too with just 16 minutes of barefoot running. These runners also had a significantly higher heart rate.5
A look at ancient sciences like reflexology and acupressure also throws more light on the brain–feet connection. Reflexology revolves around using pressure points in the feet and hands to improve the functioning of specific organs. Acupressure covers the entire body more holistically. Practitioners of acupressure believe that by working on specific points on the body, any imbalance in the flow of chi or life force can be addressed. Acupressure is used to correct that imbalance to make the patient feel better. Techniques such as Shiatsu from Japan (from shi for fingers and atsu for pressure) and Do In from China focus on the significance of the sole and toes in sending messages to the brain.
So how do these apply in barefoot walking or running? Going barefoot applies pressure on the nerve endings in the soles of our feet. This improves blood circulation and stimulates the reflex action of the organ, muscle, or gland connected to that spot on the foot. The forebrain and the memory also end up feeling the positive pressure. So much so that there is even a patent for a special shoe insole that has protuberances to simulate the pressure applied to the soles by reflexology or acupressure.The design is meant to replicate the feeling of walking or running on uneven terrain and touch those pressure points that speak directly to the forebrain that houses intelligence and memory.6 But then, why not reap the same benefits by going barefoot as much as you can?
Going barefoot definitely has a lot going for it. Whether it’s reducing injuries while running or improving speed and gait, it has been endorsed and glamorized by quite a few Olympian runners. Now we know that it also directly impacts the brain and does its bit to improve our balance and memory function.
|↑1||Brain Basics: Know Your Brain, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.|
|↑2||Saxby, L. Proprioception, making sense of barefoot running,(2011).|
|↑3||Périssé, Paulo. “On Baroque Angels and the Importance of Going Barefoot.” Encounter 21 (2008): 17-20.|
|↑4||Siegelbaum, Steven A., and A. J. Hudspeth. Principles of neural science. Edited by Eric R. Kandel, James H. Schwartz, and Thomas M. Jessell. Vol. 4. New York: McGraw-hill, 2000.|
|↑5||Alloway, Ross G., Tracy Packiam Alloway, Peter M. Magyari, and Shelley Floyd. “An Exploratory Study Investigating the Effects of Barefoot Running on Working Memory.” Perceptual and motor skills 122, no. 2 (2016): 432-443.|
|↑6||Turucz, Sandor. “ACU-pressure massaging insoles.” U.S. Patent 4,841,647, issued June 27, 1989.|