Why can't you move toes individually?
October 5, 2006 6:38 PM   Subscribe

Why can't you move your toes individually?

I feel like I'm blowing my question of the week, but it's something I've wondered for a while. I can point with my index finger, give someone the middle finger, give someone a thumbs-up, etc., but I can't move an individual toe. (I have no reason to, but that's not the point.)

Why is this? Do we just not learn to control the muscles? Do the muscles atrophy? Is it just not possible for some biological reason? (And why don't more people wonder things like this?)
posted by fogster to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I can move my big toe up while my other toes grip downward. I can scrunch some toes while not scrunching others. I knew a woman with no arms who needed to use her feet to write and she certainly was able to move individual toes.

I think you need more practice.
posted by b33j at 6:45 PM on October 5, 2006

I can move the toes on my right foot independently of one another.
posted by bunglin jones at 6:58 PM on October 5, 2006

As I understand it...The neural connection for your hands, from an early age, takes up a greater part of brain than the area that's wired for your feet.
posted by filmgeek at 7:00 PM on October 5, 2006

For awhile, I've been thinking about asking if your toes/feet could become as dextrous as your fingers/hands if you used them all your life. Like, would everyone be able to use cell phones with their toes? Play instruments? Would it be possible, but only if we didn't damage them by walking on them? Or only if we started young?

If you turn on Maury or something, you'll see people with no arms do stuff like put in contacts. I'm pretty good at picking stuff up with my toes, but those guys are several thousand levels above me.

By way of evidence, I offer (via YouTube) "armless guitar guy," woman changing a baby, and "armless woman cooking breakfast with her feet."

You and I don't because there's no need. It doesn't seem like there's a physiological reason people don't use their toes.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:02 PM on October 5, 2006

I have no reason to, but that's not the point.

But I think it is the point. We generally have no reason to move our toes individually the way we do our fingers so there's no strong selection pressure towards evolving this movement. There's some selection pressure against fancy toe movement (as it's a wasted resource) but it's probably very weak, so the natural variation includes some levels of individual toe movement in some people.

Practise probably helps develop whatever resources you have, but someone with all-together moving toes like me (I have very limited individual toe movement) probably would never get as good as, say, b33j no matter how much I practise.
posted by shelleycat at 7:03 PM on October 5, 2006

... you'll see people with no arms do stuff like put in contacts

Wow, that's impressive. I'm fully prepared to be wrong about the practise thing, although I expect there will always be variation in ability just like there is with everything else.
posted by shelleycat at 7:05 PM on October 5, 2006

If your species had any good reason to move its toes with the same kind of dexterity that the fingers on your hand have, then you'd have evolved with the ability to do so. With practice you can no doubt learn to move your toes a lot better than you can now, but I think it's impossible to learn to move them as well as fingers.

It's not just the muscles that figure in this, but the nerves that control them and the tendons that connect them to the toes. See here for details if you enjoy reading stuff like this: "The two portions join at an acute angle, and end in a flattened band which is inserted into the lateral margin and upper and under surfaces of the tendon of the Flexor digitorum longus, forming a kind of groove, in which the tendon is lodged. It usually sends slips to those tendons of the Flexor digitorum longus which pass to the second, third, and fourth toes." I think that bit sort of implies that toes are going to be inherently less capable of independent motion than are fingers, but I'm not really sure.

The neural connection for your hands, from an early age, takes up a greater part of brain than the area that's wired for your feet.

Yes, but the brain is notoriously plastic when it comes to things like this. If your hands were cut off or something, there's a good chance you'd be able to re-train some part of that spare brain volume to wiggling your toes instead. Or so I've heard.
posted by sfenders at 7:13 PM on October 5, 2006

Maybe I should have mentioned that I can do this because I practised really, really hard when I was a kid (though I can't remember why).
posted by bunglin jones at 7:21 PM on October 5, 2006

I can tie shoelaces (of a tennis shoe not on my foot) with my toes. Not that I need to (other than to win the occasional bets), but it does speak to the toe-tal possibilities. I did have to teach myself how to do it (iirc, I learned during my college years) and it took some practice.

I've always used my toes to pick things up (and I grew up in a no-shoes-indoors household, so I suspect having bare toes at the ready makes one more likely to use them). My SO isn't able to do anything other than just flex his toes but my son emulates me and uses his toes as I do (though he hasn't gotten the hang of tying shoes with fingers or toes yet).
posted by jamaro at 7:22 PM on October 5, 2006

You don't have to, basically.
posted by fire&wings at 7:28 PM on October 5, 2006

Gray's Anatomy: Comparison of the Bones of the Hand and Foot.
posted by sfenders at 7:30 PM on October 5, 2006

I can move my big toes and my pinkie toes pretty much independently of the other toes and I use all the toes for picking things up and making weird clickie noises in my shoes that sound oogy. So, in short, some people can. I don't remember practicing especially or anything, it's just something I've always been able to do, though I did grow up in a pretty barefoot household.
posted by jessamyn at 7:33 PM on October 5, 2006

I used to work at NASA, in robotics. We were building a robotic arm and hand, and we had a renowned expert on the project. He built us a four-fingered hand, which was a big deal back in the 80s. I asked him why not five fingers, and he said it's just too hard to arrange the tendons so they don't get in each other's way. He quipped that even God couldn't pull off a five-fingered hand, with each finger having independent movement.
posted by iconjack at 7:39 PM on October 5, 2006

Why can't you move your toes individually?

My wife can. I gather it's something she's been practicing since childhood. It's freakishly attractive.
posted by meehawl at 7:52 PM on October 5, 2006

I grew up in a barefoot household too. I did use my feet to pick things up occasionally. I'm not as dextrous as jamaro or bunglin jones. I can't get my foot up to my head anymore so there's no way I could put contacts in.

I agree that the toes can't have the same flexibility as fingers (less knuckles for a start) and they're shorter, so tendons from one affect the other more, but I think (without any real data) that the toe limitations many of us endure are really to do with lack of use.
posted by b33j at 7:56 PM on October 5, 2006

Oddly enough, this very subject has been fascinating me for the past few weeks. in my yoga class, we focus on isolating all body parts and being able to control them individually - toes included! I just noticed this week that I am getting some control over my little toe - i can hold the rest of my toes together and move my little toe away. . .come to think of it, same with the big toe! but i really, REALLY have to focus on it. I think it definitely has to do with normally having no reason to move our toes individually.
posted by jengineer at 8:01 PM on October 5, 2006

The human foot requires toes for balance while walking. If your toes are amputated, you will not be able to walk properly even afater the wounds heal. If the toes' anatomy was set up for grater dexterity, they might not be as good for walking.

Ever look at apes' feet? The feet of a chimp are much more like human hands than human feet; they do more gripping and less walking. We humans sacrificed toe dexterity for bipedality.
posted by bad grammar at 8:29 PM on October 5, 2006

The Sensory and Motor Homunculi are models of humans if our body parts were proportional in size to the amount of brain area responsible for controlling it, and illustrate nicely how little of our brain is involved with our feet compared to our hands.
posted by mendel at 8:30 PM on October 5, 2006

If your species had any good reason

Your species? What species are you, sfender?
posted by digitalis at 9:10 PM on October 5, 2006

When I was 12, I read a science fiction novel where a guy, living in space, was nearly as handy with his feet as with his hands (The Rolling Stones, by Heinlein). This encouraged me to use my feet more.

When I was 17, I injured my back in a sky diving accident. My feet came in handy. Now I pick stuff up with my feet all the time, to avoid bending over. Not complex stuff, just gripping and lifting, but I can be rather good at the balancing part in the process.

Clearly it's all about need and practice, and a little about anatomy.
posted by Goofyy at 9:13 PM on October 5, 2006

some people can
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:44 PM on October 5, 2006

The areas of your brain responsible for diffrent parts of the body can actually change in size depending on how much you use them.
posted by delmoi at 1:49 AM on October 6, 2006

I saw a film in fifth grade of a woman with no arms who could do everything with her toes that hands could do.

I practiced for about two months. I made very little progress, but I developed independent control of my pinkie toes that I still have today.

It's all about practice. Most things are.
posted by ewkpates at 5:58 AM on October 6, 2006

sfender is on the right track; all of the tendons to the toes splay out from one muscle, making it necessary to have very fine control over that muscle in order to move them independently. That takes a lot of practice and most people have no reason to put that much effort into it. Compare that to the muscles of the hand and forearm. There are a number of separate muscles just for control of the thumb. The index finger also has additional muscles/tendons compared to the other finger, which is why it is easier to move independently of the three other fingers.
posted by TedW at 7:11 AM on October 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

i can hold the rest of my toes together and move my little toe away.

Muad'Dib? Is that you?

Another monkey-toe person, here. I use them to pick things up all the time, not thinking about it until someone points it out. My toes are very long, which probably helps. (As long as my fingers, in fact. Rather, my big toe is as long as my little finger, joint-to-joint. And yours probably is, too.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:55 AM on October 6, 2006

I have monkey-toes, as does my family on my mother's side - we've always used them to pick things up etc. Call us weird or whatever but it's useful having an extra (not-very dextrous) pair of hands for various tasks.

One of my friends was born without any arms and she can perform any task with her feet that a person with arms can do (yes, even wiping herself after visiting the toilet). She's a wonderful girl and the sight of her drinking a pint using her feet alone is awe-inspiring.

If, like me, you find people who can hold a beer glass with their feet impressive...
posted by longbaugh at 8:52 AM on October 6, 2006

Many dancers (esp. ballet dancers) have an incredible range of articulation in their feet, and this can include the ability to move individual toes. Dance training gives you very strong feet and an awareness of the muscles and tendons there, and I think this definitely enhances and enables conscious mobility of your toes.
posted by deeparch at 9:03 AM on October 6, 2006

In Larry Niven's books his Belters (who live their whole lives in zero-G, in the Asteroid Belt) develop just as much dexterity with their toes as with their fingers. An accurate prediction? You decide.
posted by Rash at 10:33 AM on October 6, 2006

The personal datapoints from barefoot households here are interesting. In Hawaii, barefoot households are the norm, and as recently as my dad's generation, going barefoot all day (yes, even in school) was common. And I can't put in contacts or play a guitar with my toes, but I often instinctively use my feet to pick up stuff -- toys, laundry, whatever -- open doors, hit switches, and things like that.

My kids are picking up the habit, too... something my wife (from Florida) finds wholly fascinating and only a little disturbing. But toe dexterity was nothing unusual in my family, nor in general, here.

I wouldn't set the table with my feet or anything, but I figure I always could. Those videos of fancy footwork are proof that folks can do quite a bit with practice!
posted by pzarquon at 10:59 AM on October 6, 2006

I trained myself to move a particular muscle in my upper lip that I had never been able to use before. The muscle is either called the 'levator labii' or the 'levator unguli oris', and runs from the lower part of the eye alongside the nose to the upper lip. source

I could already control the left hand side. It was the most curious sensation trying to control its right-hand-side counterpart - I knew I was telling the muscle to move but absolutely nothing was happening.

I was determined to learn the movement because it was the symmetry twin of a muscle I already could control.

I practised moving the left muscle and concentrated very hard on how the movement felt, and how it felt in relation to the thought process associated with it.

I cannot decide to this day whether

(a) the muscle was recieving the signal to contract and through lack of excercise was not physically able to react, or

(b) the brain had never had cause to use the muscle and so the motor neurons responsible had never been assigned (the movement had never been learnt)

Food for thought, but as for me I'm continuing my painstaking personal research into how dextrously I may operate a keyboard with my feet.

Not much luck yet, having been hindered (STOPPED) by a bloody verruca. Disgusting.
posted by cosmicstresshead at 3:40 PM on September 11, 2007

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