Which Little Piggy?

People typically come with ten fingers and ten toes, but when it comes down to it, we tend to neglect the latter set. That may be because we can’t do much with our toes, at least not intentionally. (Or, put another way, they’re not nearly as useful as our fingers.) In fact, we don’t really think much about our toes — they’re just kind of there, hiding in our shoes, doing whatever toes do.And as it turns out, we’re not really good at thinking about our toes, even when we try to. Just ask a team of researchers from Oxford University.In 2015, the researchers asked test subjects to close their eyes while someone from the research team pressed on one of their fingers; the subject was then asked to correctly identify which finger was stimulated. Then, the researchers repeated the test, but focused on a toe instead of a finger. In September of that year, a journal called Perception (” a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal reporting experimental results and theoretical ideas ranging over the fields of human, animal, and machine perception”) published the researchers paper reporting on their findings. The short version: we know where our fingers are, even if we can’t see them. But our toes? Not so much.

The lead author of the paper, a professor named Nela Cicmil, explained: “People could correctly identify the finger being stimulated in 99 per cent of cases. For the big and little toes, that fell to 94 per cent. But for the middle toes, it was 57, 60 and 79 per cent.” In particular, the study found, we struggle distinguishing between our second and third toes — almost half the test subjects, when their second toe was the one stimulated, would incorrectly say it was the third one.

If that’s weird to you, that’s only because you really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about your toes. The researchers — who do spend a lot of time on such questions — didn’t seem too surprised by those findings. There’s a well-known (but not well-understood) phenomenon known as “agnosia,” which is common in stroke victims; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke describes as “an inability to recognize and identify objects or persons.” Dr. Cicmil and team believe that the inability to correctly identify toes is a form of this, although not one which is suggestive of any larger, underlying neurological disorder. (So don’t worry.) For some reason, the human brain just doesn’t care to consistently distinguish between toe number two and toe number three.

There was, however, a part of the study which caught Dr. Cicmil and team off-guard. Not only did many people have trouble distinguishing between one toe and the next, a lot of people also had trouble keeping track of their toes altogether. As Mental Floss reported, “nearly half of the testers reported feeling as if one toe were gone.” That is, a huge percentage of the test group felt like they had only four toes on the foot in question; the fifth one disappeared from their mind’s eye. Dr. Cicmil and team didn’t have an explanation, telling the Oxford University press team that “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.” To reiterate: many of us have a hard time thinking about our toes.

But before you haphazardly joke that the missing toe “went to market,” rest assured that this seemingly silly study has practical value. As Gizmodo noted, Dr. Cicmil’s and team “point out that tests like these can be used to create better tests for brain damage” and that “understanding the kinds of errors healthy humans make can in turn be used to hone the way the results of such tests are processed.”

Bonus Fact: The Cinderella fairy tale doesn’t typically involve toes, but it does involve feet: the prince searches for his mysterious future wife by running around the kingdom, putting her left-behind glass slipper on the women in the area in order to identify its owner. In the standard story we tell our kids, Cinderella’s (evil) stepsisters insist on trying on the slipper, only to not have their feet fit. No big deal. But in one of the early versions of the Cinderella fairy tale — the one by the Brothers Grimm — Cinderella’s stepsisters went to make the shoe fit: they cut off their heels and toes. Initially, this ruse fooled the prince, but doves (yes, birds) noticed blood dripping from the slipper, advised the prince of this, and he in turn rejected each of the stepsisters as frauds.From the Archives: Fourteen Feet Deep: The island where feet — no body attached — wash up on shore. (This one is kinda gross.)Take the Quiz: Can you pick the body parts from the children’s song Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes in order, without making a mistake?

Related: A fake foot. Uses are unclear.