In the Brains of Foot-Painters, Feet Become Hands

Brain scans show that foot artists' toes are mapped individually, like fingers.

Posted Sep 23, 2020

Tom Yendell has been a professional artist for more than 30 years. Based in Hampshire, UK, he paints vibrant, graphic images on canvas and silk. Unlike most fine artists, though, Yendell creates every precise line and colourful brushstroke using either his mouth or his feet. Now, fMRI scans have shown that Yendell’s sophisticated use of his feet has made permanent changes to his brain.

A team at University College London compared Yendell’s brain and the brain of another professional foot artist, Peter Longstaff, to the brains of 21 control subjects who use their hands for most tasks. Both Yendell and Longstaff were born without arms and, since childhood, have used their feet to do a wide variety of everyday activities, from getting dressed, to using cutlery, to answering the phone.

Watch Yendell demonstrate how he cooks gourmet meals using his mouth and his feet:

Not only are their foot movements far more elaborate than the average person’s, but foot painters also get more complex touch experiences on their toes. Because they need their feet to be free to manipulate objects around them, neither Yendell nor Longstaff regularly wear enclosed shoes. In his 20 years as a farmer, Longstaff went barefoot outdoors year-round, using his feet to drive his tractor, administer injections to his animals, and carry out other work.

Harriet Dempsey-Jones/Cell Reports (Open Access)
For the foot artists, each individual toe corresponded to a precise area in the brain. The toes of the control subjects were not individually mapped in the brain.
Source: Harriet Dempsey-Jones/Cell Reports (Open Access)

When a researcher touched the artists’ toes during an fMRI scan, a distinct part of the somatosensory cortex – the brain’s body area – lit up for each digit. The average two-handed person has distinct brain areas dedicated to each of their fingers, but not to their toes. Instead, they have a solid brain “footprint” with no separation between individual toes. The artists’ feet, in other words, were mapped in their brains like hands.

On top of that, researchers discovered the foot painters’ toes had taken over real estate in the part of the brain that would have been devoted to their hands. This is in line with previous research showing that parts of the somatosensory cortex that are going unused due to a missing limb get annexed by the body parts being used to compensate. For instance, the lips, feet, or arms of a person born with only one hand might take over the brain-space reserved for that hand.

The discovery is more proof of the flexibility of the human brain. “For almost all people, each of our fingers is represented by its own little section of the brain, while there’s no distinction between brain areas for each of our toes,” Daan Wesselink, one of the study’s authors and a Ph.D. student at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the University of Oxford, explained in a release.

 Anna Shvets/Pexels
A woman wearing a white lab coat and blue nitrile gloves holds a brain scan up to the light.
Source: Anna Shvets/Pexels

“But in other non-human primate species, who regularly use their toes for dextrous tasks like climbing,” he continued, “both the toes and fingers are specifically represented in their brains. Here, we’ve found that in people who use their toes similarly to how other people use their fingers, their toes were represented in their brains in a way never seen before in people.”

Despite his unique neurology, Yendell doesn’t see himself as exceptional. Like everyone else, he simply learned to do the things he wanted to do with the body he was born with.

“How did you figure out how to do things with your hands?” he asks. “You don’t need to be shown how to do it. You just do it naturally.”

Click here to see Tom Yendell’s art.

Click here to see Peter Longstaff’s art.