Close Your Eyes, Lose A Toe?

How our brains mappings of our bodies may not be perfect

You would think that us humans would be pretty good at identifying parts of our body, right? Yet new research has found that most of us cannot correctly identify some parts of our bodies. Bizarrely, about half of us can easily misplace a body part. All we have to do is close our eyes.

Confusing Body Identity

The research was undertaken by the University of Oxford and published in the journal Perception. The researchers wanted to find out how good people were at identifying different fingers and toes with their eyes closed. Each participant was touched on a particular finger or toe and asked to identify which digit it was.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people are better at identifying their fingers than their toes. The participants were able to correctly identify which finger was being prodded 99% of the time. Feet fared less well, however. When a big or little toe was touched it was identified correctly 94% of the time. The middle-toes were a lot worse. The second toe, i.e. the toe closest to the big toe, was only identified correctly 54% of the time. The third 60% and the fourth 79%. People are more likely to confuse the toes on their non-dominant foot.

Most people confuse toes when they close their eyes. Do you?Click To Tweet

The errors in mistaking toes followed a definite pattern. Most thought the second toe was the third toe and the third toe was the fourth. The fourth toe was generally confused with those before it. Everyone tested had some difficulty in telling their toes apart all the time. Nearly half of those tested felt like one of their toes was missing!

“We do know of medical conditions that can cause people to lose the sense of one of their digits. The people being tested here were healthy, yet some were reporting the feeling of a missing toe.” – Dr. Nela Cicmil, University of Oxford

So what’s going on?

Agnosia Tests

The inability to detect sensations relating to body parts is a type of Agnosia. Often this is due to brain injury which doctors determine by doing tests similar to the one in this study. What this research makes clear is that healthy people may also experience difficulty in distinguishing their toes and that this should be taken into account when testing for brain damage. A minor lapse in body identity skills does not necessarily signify brain damage.

It seems that our brains do not map out our toes very well, it takes shortcuts.  The researchers think that our brain “sees” five equal-width blocks on our feet. And the gaps between our toes do not necessarily mark the transition from one block to another.

So, there is an obvious and serious point to take away from this research. If you have a pair of those glove-like shoes or socks with individual toes, do not put them on with your eyes closed. Toe trapping chaos may ensue.

I’m surprised the researchers did not issue this warning.

How are your digit identifying skills? Have you had your toes prodded by a stranger when your eyes were closed? Leave a comment below!


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