There’s an article that’s been showing up on my Facebook feed, about The Scientific Reasons Why You Should Just Always Be Naked. In it, it discusses going barefoot.
But it oversells it, and gets it wrong. Their supposed reason for going barefoot just makes up the science.
Here’s what it says about bare feet.
What if I told you shoes were causing you to lose brain function? What if not wearing shoes meant decreasing your risk for Alzheimer’s? What if stripping down the clothes meant adding up the years?
According to Dr. Norman Doidge, “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.”
It seems arbitrary, but walking around barefoot increases brain flexibility. It doesn’t just make you feel young again, it makes your brain feel young again.
The trouble is, Dr. Doidge never said that at all. The writer is sloppy, taking something from another source and distorting it to make it look as if Dr. Doidge said that, but he didn’t. The author is just passing along rank unsupported speculation.
It’s rather like the people who keep telling us that there are health codes against going barefoot, or that driving barefoot is illegal. They just copy something from somewhere else, distort in in the process, and then we barefooters are stuck with more myths.
There is no reason to think going barefoot helps Alzheimer’s at all.
Dr. Doidge is the author of the books The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing. Both are about neuroplasticity, how using our brains changes them and can increase the connections in the areas of our brains related to any increased use.
Alzheimer’s is related to plaques that form in the brain, diminishing the ability of the brain cells. Even if going barefoot leads to increased growth in the part of the brain related to the foot (and it does for those without Alzheimer’s), it won’t affect the rest of the brain and help Alzheimer’s anywhere else.
So, how did this fake quote emerge?
There are all sorts of similar articles out there online. I have to admit that I uncritically quoted from a similar-sounding article a few years ago, in This is your Brain on Clogs.
But the earliest article I can find mentioning Alzheimer’s in this regard is in the January 21, 2010 issue of h+ magazine. The article is called “Get Naked: It’s Good for Your Brain”. (The article is no longer there.) The article was written by somebody named “Hank Hyena” (pseudonym?), and here’s what he says about bare feet.
2. Barefoot Medicine. 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. Merzenich believes our brains decline if we “limit the sensory feedback from our feet.” He advocates walking barefoot (to improve balance, posture, and co-ordination functions in the vestibulocerebellum.) Dr. Norman Doidge (author of The Brain That Changes Itself) concurs that skipping shoes will increase brain flexibility and youthfulness, and many podiatrists now advise going barefoot as much as possible. Bare feet are today’s prescription. Tomorrow’s elixir will take the next step: Bare Body.
So, the “Scientific Reason” took the musings of our Hyena and converted it a quote from Doidge. Not good at all.
The rest (the non-Alzheimer’s part) isn’t too bad, though.
What Dr. Doidge does say in his book, though, is the following:
Finally, they are working on “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 from out feet. According to Merzenich, shoes, worn for decades, limit the sensory feedback from out 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 out 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.
Now this makes sense, and is a great scientific reason to go barefoot. Note that Dr. Doidge hasn’t done the scientific work himself—he’s reporting on the work of Dr. Merzenich. (Thus, the article that presents them as two independent sources is also involved in overselling.)
Dr. Marzenich is a neuroscientist who has done a lot of work in neuroplasticity.
I discussed this idea with Dr. Michael Merzenich, the neuroscientist featured in The Brain That Changes Itself. He’s of the belief that old people fall because the ‘brain map’ of the foot has “de-differentiated” and doesn’t see the foot as 5 flexible toes and a sole, but of a big, inflexible paddle. He agrees that they need to get barefoot to re-differentiate the brain map and regain the ability to get the necessary sensory information for balancing.
This idea is expressed more fully in a Xeroshoes article, Why Walking Barefoot Is Better For Elderly People.
In our conversation, Dr. Merzenich and I discussed the brain’s “map” of the body. Think of your hand for a moment. In the “brain map” for the hand there’s a separate area for each finger. And, not surprisingly, the part of the brain-map for your first finger is next to the part of the map for your second finger… and so on down the line. Each finger’s section of the map is “differentiated” from the next.
If you taped your first two fingers together, after a while your brain-map would change. The sections for the first and second finger would essentially merge. The brain-map for those two fingers would de-differentiate.
At that point, you would experience your two fingers as one slightly bigger finger.
Well, Dr. Merzenich thinks that the same thing happens to the brain map for your feet. Over time, and after wearing shoes that, basically, “tape” your foot together, not allowing it to move with the full flexibility it normally has, not feeling all the different sensations it was built to feel, your brain-map for your foot de-differentiates.
At that point, from your brain’s perspective, you don’t have 5 flexible toes on a strong, flexible arch. You have a paddle.
And it’s hard to balance a paddle.
This really seems to make sense, and it is backed up by scientific research. There is also no reason why it ought to be limited to only the elderly. All of us benefit from such an increased brain mapping. That’s one of the things proprioception is all about.
There’s no reason to oversell things. The actual science, without the fakey-quotes mis-attributions, says quite enough.
It also has the benefit of being true.
If folks are interested, here’s a TED talk from Dr. Merzenich, from 2004. He doesn’t talk about barefooting, but it is a good introduction to how brain plasticity works.