The Barefoot Experiment

I tried out a pair of toe-shoes yesterday – you know, those shoes that isolate each toe and give the appearance of having neon mutant bionic feet. While not thrilled with their style I was interested in the claim that wearing these shoes is like being barefooted, bare feet being another pillar of the paleo lifestyle.

Bare feet, they say, is best for the body: better for posture and better for the foot in all its muscled complexity. Bare feet may also be better for the brain, which especially intrigues me. Bare feet, the theory goes, send lots of stimulating information to the brain. Shoe-covered feet have comparatively little to say to the brain causing nervous-system atrophy.

As for the toe-shoes, I wasn’t impressed. It was a little more like being barefoot than regular shoes but was way more like being in shoes than being barefooted. I left without buying any.

I was disappointed, having so looked forward to trying out bare feet and reaping all those benefits. Then it hit me: perhaps bare feet could be gotten more easily? I devised an experiment.

Next morning I stepped out the door of my downtown apartment shoeless, bound for a coffee shop two miles away. After a few bare foot paces I decided to go shirtless too as getting more sun is also on my list of paleo things to do. Here are some observations I made:

Instead of protecting my feet with shoes, primary responsibility shifted to my eyes. Since city streets and sidewalks can be nasty, I continually scanned the ground as I walked to chart a path of least-nastiness. First observation: being barefooted made walking significantly more engaging and a more active activity.

Soon my tender feet hit some gravel, which was painful at my current speed. I slowed down and the discomfort diminished. Second observation: walking barefoot required varying speed.

I stopped to jot these observations in my notebook and immediately got more sensory data: Hot pavement. Hmm… increasingly hot the longer I stand still. I got moving. More data: Feet wet now. Feet gritty and wet now. Drying off now. I happened upon a brick sidewalk and felt my feet discern the bricks from the mortared gaps in-between. “Marvelous,” I thought. Each foot was sending complex messages about different textures simultaneously. Yes! Exactly what we’re after: complex messages sent from foot to brain! Third observation: Message sending from feet to brain dramatically increased. Perhaps this stimulation was making me smarter step by step? I smiled.

After about ten minutes I found myself inquisitively straying from the sidewalk to sample additional terrain. I would see a patch of grass and almost hear my feet say, “I wonder what that tastes like?” I would see a metal grate and veer toward it eagerly, like a dog bent on getting a sniff. I went from dodging mud puddles to walking straight through. Fourth observation: I was losing my sense of what it meant for my feet to get “dirty.” Feet enjoyed touching all this different stuff. They found it interesting.

Along my journey I encountered folks who often asked passers-by for change. But this time, instead of asking me for money, they furrowed their brow and stared quizzically. “Hello!” I said, to which they nodded cautiously. Observation number five: being shoeless (and shirtless) on a city street can exempt one from being panhandled to.

Twenty minutes later I arrived at the coffee shop and froze in the doorway as the owner stared warily at me. Quickly, I put on my shirt, pulled some sandals from my backpack, and brandished my wallet to let him know he wouldn’t get any trouble from me. Then I took my feet to the bathroom and washed them.

My feet tingled excitedly for the rest of the day. I wondered about some similar excitement in my brain from having contended with the such uncommonly robust messages from my feet that day; wondered if it was busy bolstering itself with new neurons.

So ended the first installment of the barefoot experiment. And while I’m not yet sold on toe-shoes, I am rather impressed with feet and thrilled to rediscover that I own a pair.