How Going Barefoot Affects Your Brain | By Dr. Sam Oltman, ND

The anatomical, structural and functional benefits of going barefoot and wearing naturally-shaped shoes are often the emphasis of our education because these tend to be the most immediate and practical. There is, however, another massive benefit to being barefoot and it lies not in your feet but in your head—your brain, to be exact.

The brain, just like muscles, bones and connective tissue operates on the “use it or lose it” principle. Meaning, if an area of the brain is not stimulated it will atrophy, weaken and shrink. Conversely, if an area of the brain is stimulated regularly and used routinely, it can grow in both size and in the number of neuronal connections. This is the basis for the phenomenon of ‘neuroplasticity,” which is the ability of the brain to change and grow throughout adulthood.

To understand the benefits going barefoot has on the brain, we need to understand the “homunculus.” Homunculus is Latin for “little person” and in the context of biology, is the word used to describe the brain’s model for the body. There are two divisions of the homunculus—the sensory and the motor. The sensory homunculus is the area of the brain where the body is mapped out in proportion to the density of sensory neurons that correspond to various parts of the body. The motor homunculus is the area where the map is based on motor function. Areas of the body that have a higher density of neurons for either sensory or motor function take up a more extensive section of the brain (which is why the pictorial depiction of the homunculus is so strange-looking). When we use a particular body part more routinely for either feeling or moving, the homunculus in the corresponding area of the brain is stimulated and becomes more developed. With more use, a higher resolution map of that particular area forms in the brain.

Homonculus Sensory and Motor Cortex. Digital Image. Evidence-Based Medicine Consult. Web. 29 January 2019. < https://www.ebmconsult.com/articles/homunculus-sensory-motor-cortex>

When we are barefoot, we receive a massive amount of sensory feedback from our feet—far more than when we are in overly-supportive and overly-cushioned shoes. We receive increased information from the foot about its position in space, the texture of the ground and muscle tension. Being barefoot sharpens the homunculus of the foot in the brain and lays the foundation for better balance and improved motor control through the increased information intake and subsequent brain growth. When someone wears overly supportive and cushioned shoes, the sensory homunculus becomes underdeveloped, and the information the brain receives from the foot is distorted, resulting in a lack of control. When someone is barefoot regularly, the sensory feedback from the foot becomes more detailed and refined, allowing the foot and brain to delineate small changes of sensory stimuli. The result is better control of motor function and balance. This is especially important as we age because the loss of balance is the top reason for falls in the elderly.

The increase in sensory detail while barefoot plays out practically in several ways. First, it allows for increasingly refined motor control based on sensory feedback. For example, when running barefoot or in naturally shaped shoes you can accurately adjust how your foot strikes by a matter of millimeters. In contrast, running in a conventional shoe there is little feedback, and making micro-adjustments in gait is not only difficult but discouraged by the design of the shoe. Second, by using and stimulating the nerves in the foot more, their physical growth is encouraged (both in the peripheral nerves of the foot and the central neurons in the brain). This growth can have beneficial impacts on circulation and sensitivity. Finally, there is pure enjoyment in being able to feel and connect with various textures and surfaces. Being barefoot on the beach, in the grass or on the rocks of a riverbed is immensely pleasurable and provides additional physiological benefits too.

Along with the increased muscular strength, the enhanced circulatory flow and improved anatomical alignment, going barefoot has very tangible benefits on the brain and the nervous system. This results in improved balance, better motor control and more enjoyment. Add the changes in brain function to the long list of reasons to consider ditching constrictive shoes and allow your feet (and brain) to feel more.

26 thoughts on “How Going Barefoot Affects Your Brain | By Dr. Sam Oltman, ND”

    1. And I only wear shoes when absolutely necessary for an instrumental reason, such as preventing frostbite. Any time at all without full proprioception has a harmful effect on my body’s alignment and will end up causing pain. It’s important to understand that these effects are a matter of degree. Any time spent barefoot is better than none, but for some of us any kind of shoe is not optional if we want to be free of pain.

  1. I suspect that increasing barefoot feedback to the brain also increases feedback in the ankles, lower legs, knees, and hips. A massive benefit to proprioception, skeleton alignment and muscle synchronization.

    1. Agreed– there are lots of benefits up the kinetic chain when we get out of constrictive shoes and go barefoot.

  2. I love this information about going barefoot! It is so interesting and makes sense! I am kicking the shoes and going barefoot more around my house! I remember as a kid, loving the opportunity to take my shoes off, and going barefoot outside! Lots of fun!

  3. I have been given a special brace attached to an orthotic to try and help my very flat right foot–also the right ankle bends over badly. No brace for the left. I do have Correct Toes but, upon reading the above article, I was wondering if not wearing orthotics and only wearing Correct Toes, especially going barefoot, would help.

    1. If you did remove the orthotic, a very slow progression away from using it would be recommended. It’s always best to speak with a healthcare provider to be sure. Our partner clinic, Northwest Foot & Ankle, offers online consultations if you want to speak with a physician about your current foot conditions. https://www.nwfootankle.com/remote-consultations/

  4. I love to go barefoot but with my RSD it has robbed me of all the padding on the bottoms of my feet, it feels like I am walking on the bones in my feet. It even hurts to walk barefoot on my carpet. I have walked a bit outside on the soft grass but have to be careful of bees etc. I’d love to be able to walk, again on the ground, sidewalk, tile in my home. As a teenager and young mom I used to go barefoot all the time and loved it.. thanks for the article, I may try to encourage that portion of my homunculus to grow. Maybe it will help.

  5. I know firsthand experience that what this article says is true. For years I have suffered from an imbalance in neuromuscular excitation of the whole left side of my body compared to the right which was a result of stress fractures on the right side from running in high school. Nobody really knew what to do to change that until one day I was inspired to Simply take off my shoes and start running. Prior to this I had progressively had more pain in the left foot in a particular joint due to overload not due to a biomechanical deficit. I tried different types of shoes and various forms of orthotics with modifications of various types all to no avail. Gradually I got to the point where I could barely run 15 minutes without a sharp pain in the same spot. And I used to be able to run marathons. When I started to run barefoot in compact semi sandy soil around an orchard I was able to almost immediately feel the overcompensation start to balance out. Although I am not 100% relieved from the condition it has improved enough to the point where I can now do runs and Trail runs pretty much at will and to my own contentment. I have also noticed incidentally that during the winter months when I try to keep the feet warm and go around less bearfoot that the feeling of imbalance starts to become more noticeable. No I do not run Barefoot all over the place. I do tend to vary my shoes. I run in minimal shoes and more cushion shoes depending on the terrain. However I have abandoned the much more structured motion control types of shoes and orthotic inserts. I switch off often between textured insoles and correct toes and also look for opportunities to walk around barefoot as part of ongoing therapy. I am a podiatrist who was trained and educated with the Paradigm of manipulating the biomechanics of the foot with technology. I still believe that certain shoes and inserts have their place for certain problems that truly are of a mechanical origin. However I’ve also learned that many of the problems can be fixed or at least significantly improved by including a more holistic standpoint. I now implement this in my practice. It does take more time but since it made a great impact on my own life it is certainly worth it for other people with similar issues.

    1. Hi Dr. Hagen– Thank you for sharing your story with us! It’s a powerful testimony, and we’re happy to hear that transitioning to barefoot movement and running has been beneficial for your feet and body.

  6. Great article. I went barefoot to an art festival today and I felt different types of textures under my feet. Whether it’s grass, a smooth rug or concrete, every texture that you feel is going to feel different. Another thing that my brain picks up when I go out barefoot in public is the feeling of pleasure and confidence.

  7. It’s truly a wonderful feeling walking on cool grass! However it’s becoming harder to find places that aren’t laden with carcinogenic pesticides and herbicides!

  8. Great article. I’ve found that being barefoot affects my creative abilities. I can concentrate more effectively, and think more freely, and thus, work much better. Each day, I try to spend time walking barefoot outdoors.

  9. As I age (64) my feet are hurting more, and I was told years ago, to never walk bare foot. I cannot stand for more than a couple of minutes, as my feet hurt too much. Any suggestions?

  10. This all sounds very convincing, and I’m inclined to believe it, but are there any scientific studies attesting to the neural benefits of barefoot running or its effect on the brain? Also, since it is generally not possible to go barefoot at work or even outside during much of the year where I live, I was considering buying insoles designed to stimulate the nerves in the foot. What are your thoughts are on Naboso proprioceptive insoles and sandals? Thanks.

    1. Some of the conclusions in the article don’t have direct evidence but are rather based on basic science (like when you use a body part more, the corresponding area in your brain receives more blood flow, which promotes development and plasticity). Additionally, barefoot walking and running exposes the plantar surface of the foot and its innervation to much more stimulation than would be experienced within a shoe, resulting in more frequently used, developed, and fine-tuned neural pathways. However, there are the few articles and studies we can direct you to that can provide some more in-depth information. Evolutionary biologist Daniel E. Lieberman, a Harvard professor who has studied barefoot running and walking, published a research paper in June 2019 which revealed that foot callus thickness does not trade off protection for tactile sensitivity during walking. This is important because while cushioned footwear can provide foot protection that a callus might provide, wearing shoes also significantly limits tactile sensitivity and actually increases the forces each step has on your skeletal system. Both Scientific American and the New York Times recently wrote articles citing this study. Here is a 2016 article published in Science Daily, which references a study that found a 16% increase of working memory in barefoot runners when compared to runners wearing shoes.

      In regards to your question about the proprioceptive soles, they may have some benefits in certain situations, but we feel that the constant variation of walking barefoot adds significantly more benefit. However, for certain individuals that are unable to walk barefoot, proprioceptive soles may be worth trying out.

  11. Pretty helpful information. It is so intriguing and bodes well. I am kicking the shoes and going shoeless more around my home. Whenever at all without full proprioception harmfully affects my body’s arrangement and will wind up causing torment. It’s critical to comprehend that these impacts involve a degree.

  12. Modern life imposes the wearing of closed-toed shoes for any number of reasons. In pretty much any large city it simply isn’t safe or hygienic to walk without shoes, nor is it safe to operate pretty much any machinery (including notably cars and firearms) without closed-toed shoes of one or another sort. Hence in an urban setting one must make it a point to find outdoor areas with varied terrain and set aside time specifically for the purposes of walking. Couple this with the initial pain and disorientation that naturally comes with attempting to rebuild one’s feet and one’s sensory connections after so many years of keeping the feet imprisoned and there’s a lot of incentive to simply shrug it off.

    Yet as the author proves it is absolutely necessary to re-adapt. The two big modern illnesses are nervous depression and back/hip/joint trouble. We don’t think about the feet but once you realize they’re the base of all the movement affecting the latter it’s only intuitive that getting and keeping our feet in shape would set off a major salutary chain reaction for one’s health.

    So if you’re motivated despite the difficulties, how DO you adapt? Slowly. First, just get used to having your shoes off. As soon as you get in the door, discard shoes and socks and just spend the afternoon/evening walking around without them. After about two weeks this shouldn’t hurt.

    Next, if you have a lawn make it a point to start walking on the grass barefoot. If not find a park with a relatively clean turf and walk around there. Try 20 minutes at a time. Within a week you should be okay out of doors and also have a good sense of what the temperature is like so you can dress appropriately to compensate for the lack of foot cover.

    After a week or so of this you need to start walking hard paths without shoes. This WILL hurt and you need to pay attention and treat any cuts very promptly. You do this in increasing increments from 20 up through 45 minutes, three times a week. The goal here is to start toughening up the skin. After your skin stops hurting you will likely begin to feel heel pain. This is normal; you are used to a heel strike compensated for by the cushion of a thick sole. But that is actually one of the most important motor errors to correct. Let the heel pain remind you to strike with your whole foot/your forefoot, letting the arch take the pressure. It’s difficult to remember at first but once it becomes a habit the heel pain will disappear and trust me: your knees will thank you 20 years down the road!

    Next you need to begin – gradually – walking barefoot over rougher and more uneven terrain. This helps to build your ankle and foot muscles, which should have been decently primed by now. Work up slowly over rougher and rougher surfaces. Don’t try any crazy stunts like hiking barefoot unless you have already walked over similar surfaces for at least one sustained hour without any subsequent pain.

    A final word about “earthing”: just be aware that the scientific evidence behind this is quite thin or non-existent. Actually, as a matter of course I wouldn’t trust any claims of therapeutic electromagnetic phenomena that aren’t made by someone with a Ph.D. in particle physics.

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