There was an interesting article at the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies: Nudity is Health for Brains and Bodies (possibly NSFW).
First, the article notes that quite a few cultures don’t seem to have the hang-ups on nudity that Americans have. Nudity, where people can see what human bodies really look like, not just what models look like, really can lead to increased body acceptance.
But its important points relate to the plasticity of the brain. When it comes to the brain, you use it or you lose it. The naked skin is full of nerve endings that are primed to connecting with nature.
That counts even more for going barefoot. According to the article:
Going shoeless is now recognized as an anti-Alzheimer’s, brain-boosting activity because the sole sensation entices your brain into growing extra, efficient neuron connections. Dr. Norman Doidge (author of The Brain That Changes Itself) believes skipping shoes increases brain flexibility and youthfulness, and many podiatrists now advise going barefoot as much as possible. Bare feet are today’s prescription. Will tomorrow’s elixir take the next step: Bare Body?
That book relates how going barefoot as we age can protect us.
Dr. Michael Marzenich is highlighted in the book as the guru of studying brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire as we use it, even into old age. One of the things he is working on is
“gross motor control,” a function that declines as we age, leading to loss of balance, the tendency to fall, and difficulties with mobility. Aside from the failure of vestibular processing, this decline is caused by the decrease in sensory feedback from our feet. According to Merzenich, shoes, worn for decades, limit the sensory feedback from our feet to our brain. If we went barefoot, our brains would receive many different kinds of input as we went over uneven surfaces. Shoes are a relatively flat platform that spreads out the stimuli, and the surfaces we walk on are increasingly artificial and perfectly flat. This leads us to dedifferentiate the maps for the soles of our feet and limit how touch guides our foot control. Then we may start to use canes, walkers, or crutches or rely on other senses to steady ourselves. By resorting to these compensations instead of exercising our failing brain systems, we hasten their decline.
As we age, we want to look down at our feet while walking down stairs or on slightly challenging terrain, because we’re not getting much information from our feet. As Merzenich escorted his mother-in-law down the stairs of the villa, he urged her to stop looking down and start feeling her way, so that she would maintain, and develop, the sensory map for her foot, rather than letting it waste away.
So, that’s what we have: great sensory maps of our feet. No wonder we have, and can depend on, proprioception.
I’ve mentioned before that my standard reply for people who ask me why I hike barefoot is “We go into the woods to see the sights, smell the smells, and hear the sounds. And they we turn off our sense of touch. Well, I don’t turn off my sense of touch.”
Well, it turns out I also don’t turn off my brain.