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Jul. 15 2010 - 12:57 am | 698 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

In Your Brain, Feet and Sex are Old Friends

Strange and perplexing meanders the path of science news in any given day.

Earlier, I came across a story over at BBC News about the effect of celebrity endorsements of shoes on women’s brains. A Dutch team of researchers scanned the brains of 24 women as they looked at 40 pictures of celebrities and of non-famous, but sexy, people wearing stylish shoes.

When looking at a celebrity sporting the shoes, women’s brains showed heightened activity in the medial oribitofrontal cortex (a part of the brain linked to “warm” feelings of affection). The same thing didn’t happen when they looked at pictures of sexy shoe-wearing non-celebrities.  So these women seemed to really love the shoes–in a more literal sense than usual–at least when they were modeled by celebrities.  And the impact appears to be long-term, according to the researchers; such is the emotional imprint of famous folks donning inviting footwear.

Which leads me to a related topic (well, at least I’m going to relate it for the purpose of this post)–namely, what’s going on in the brain of a foot fetishist? In the research above, the pivotal variable seems to be less the sex appeal of the shoes, or the feet wearing them, and more the emotionally potent influence of the celebrity rubbing off on the footwear. But in your common, run-of-the-mill foot fetishism, the feet and/or shoes in question might belong to just about anyone.  So clearly there’s a different dynamic at work, but what is it?

This question takes me to an illuminating graphic created by Emily Nagoski, the self proclaimed “Sex Nerd,” who believes she’s uncovered the connection. Actually, she’s illustrated a connection that was made some time ago by neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, who proposed that foot fetishism is caused by the feet and the genitals occupying adjacent areas of the somatosensory cortex, possibly entailing some “neural crosstalk” between the two.

Here’s Emily’s graphic. Note that the genitalia and feet/toes are right next to each other along the somatosensory cortex (illustrated by Emily via a somatosensory homunculus–the instructive “little human” of the brain).

Emily’s explanation of the graphic warrants a direct quote:

Even though your feet are at one end of you actual body and your genitals are in the middle, as far as your brain is concerned, they’re right next to each other.

A phenomenon known in the nerd world as “spreading activation” takes us the rest of the way along this story. The foot sensation part of your brain “lights up” and lights up a little bit of the genital part of your brain along with it, or vice versa, and suddenly there’s a link between sexual arousal and foot sensations.

And so over time the guy (it’s usually a guy – not always, but usually) begins to feel sexual desire around feet, in the same way that he feels sexual desire around the genitals of his partner.

Makes sense.  A little cross-wire activity bridges parts of the brain that are already neighbors, and there you go. Why, however, would this necessarily be a predominantly male phenomenon?

That will have to remain a question for another day. Many thanks to the Sex Nerd for a great little graphic that sheds light on one of the more peculiar twists of the noggin.


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  1. collapse expand

    spelling:

    should be somAtosensory, not “somotosensory humunculus–” as you have it. As in psyche/ soma, somatic (Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World (that has such people innit) called the people-pacification drug “Soma,” I believe. And, of course, the women were all “pneumatic”–perhaps Huxley’s pæan to the age of Rubens?

  2. collapse expand

    Great shoes do have healing power. Just saying…

  3. collapse expand

    Interesting; this from John 13:1-15:

    “Jesus, knowing that all things the Father hath given to Him — into His hands — and that from God He came forth, and unto God He goeth, doth rise from the supper, and doth lay down his garments, and having taken a towel, he girded himself; afterward he putteth water into the basin, and began to wash the feet of his disciples, and to wipe with the towel with which he was being girded.”

  4. collapse expand

    Interesting, but what about all the other fetishes out there? Are leather and rubber located next to the genitals in someone’s brain as well?

  5. collapse expand

    Fetishes aren’t just a brain phenomenon; there’s a large social/cultural component as well. The foot fetish is the most common sexual fetish, which makes sense in light of the neuro landscape, but that doesn’t mean every fetish originates the same way. Who knows why some people encase themselves in latex? Much more going on underlying such a thing, I’d guess,

  6. collapse expand

    There was a time in our history, I imagine, when only the well-heeled could afford shoes.

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    I’m a freelance writer, blogger and research wonk who writes about science, technology and the cultural ripples of both. Along my winding career route I've been a public outreach specialist, editor, research analyst, proposal writer and part-time journo. When I’m not writing for True/Slant, I’m blogging about neuroscience and a medley of ‘ologies’ at Neuronarrative.com, and writing freelance for Scientific American Mind.

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