When I look for Friday Weird Science topics, I often end up with stuff that sex-related. Why? Because sex sells, and weird sex stuff sells even better. And isn’t it crazy that people STUDY this stuff?
So here it is: McGeoch, P. “Does cortical reorganization explain the enduring popularity of foot-binding in medieval China?” Medical Hypotheses (2007) 69, 938-941.
Warning: there are some frightening pics of feet below the fold.
So this is not a case study or an actual paper with methods and all, it’s basically just a hypothesis. But I thought it was an interesting idea. I actually got to go the the Museum of Sex in NYC when they were having an exhibit on foot-binding, it was incredibly interesting. Unfortunately that was a good while ago.
Foot-binding was a common practice in China, and it is believed that the practice dates from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 BCE). According to one of my favorite sources for history, “The Cartoon History of the Universe” by Larry Gonick, an emperor saw a group of foreign dancing girls with absurdly tiny feet. He loved the delicate look of the feet in tiny bow shoes (the way I always see it talked about, it looks like they may have been one of the ideas behind blocked pointe shoes), and it became a practice for high-born families in the Chinese elite. After a while it spread to the lower classes.
Over time, first perhaps in imitation of the emperor, the idea of the bound foot became a potent sexual symbol. Men thought that smelling the wrappings that bound the feet was erotic, and touching or seeing a bound foot was considered a real turn-on. Apparently there are 48 different ways to play with a bound foot (Louisa Lim, NPR) This paper is concerned with why. Most people don’t really think feet are erotic, why would a simple fashion change cause an upsurge in foot-fetish?
Dr. Geoch has come up with a hypothesis as to why foot-binding persisted for so long, as well as why it become a sexual symbol. Your brain processes information on touch, pain, tickling, and various other tactile sensations in the somatosensory cortex. This is an area at the top of your brain, and it makes up the most anterior portion of the parietal lobe. The various parts of your body are mapped out along the cortex, with the most sensitive areas, such as the face and hands, getting more space compared to stuff that’s not so sensitive, like your back. The picture of what the sensory mapping looks like is called a homunculus.
(Photo courtesy of Omnibrain)
Scientists did some very cool experiments (like poking someone’s brain while they were awake during surgery and asking them what happened) to determine how the somatosensory cortex is mapped out. One of the things that is kind of quirky is that the sensory areas for your feet lie right next to the sensory areas for your genetalia. So the idea became that, if you have some neurons crossing over between the sensory areas for your feet and the ones for your you-know, you’ll end up with a foot fetish, usually one where you like having your feet touched.
Moreover, your somatosensory cortex (and many other areas of your brain) is not static and set in stone. Rather, changes in your environment can cause reorganization of sensory mapping. The best known tactile example is with amputation and “phantom limb”. People have a sensation of the limb still being there, even though neurons from that area have been cut off. In many cases, their brains have undergone sensory remapping, causing touch on other parts of the body to also give the sensation of the phantom limb. Dr. Ramachandran has an excellent example of this in this book “Phantoms in the Brain“, which is really GREAT, by the way. He talks about this gur who lost his arm, and subsequently got phantom limb when the side of his face was touched. The face part of the somatosensory cortex had taken over the part that originally processed arm touch.
This is where Dr. McGeoch got his idea. He notes that ancient Chinese historians who lived during the Tang Dynasty talked about women with their feet bound, noting that they were, perhaps, a little more “sensitive” in bed than those who had big feet. So foot binding was considered conducive to a better sex life. Dr. McGeoch hypothesizes that, because the girl’s feet were kept small, broken, and atrophied, she might get a structural reorganization in her somatosensory cortex, where neurons were recruited from the feet to the genetalia, resulting in a stronger signal from the genitals. Of course, this would remain to be seen (and I would not want to be the lab rat for that experiment), but it’s an interesting idea.
When I read this paper, I actually had another idea. Somatosensory information and brain organization can also be affected by stuff going on in your environment. So the girls may have had more sensitive genetalia as a result of maimed feet, but how does that make the men want to smell their foot bindings? My idea is that experiences in the enviroment implying that feet are sexy may cause a certain amount of rewiring in the men as well, such that ideas, images, etc coupled with a woman’s feet might trigger reactions in the genetalia. After all, other parts of female anatomy have become potent sex symbols in other cultures, even though those parts are not related to reproduction.
My favorite example is when my friend and I went to a Civil War re-enactment. She’s an ardent Civil War re-enactor and was dressed to the nines. So we’re walking along, and her shoe comes untied. She puts her foot up to tie it, and a man walks by and leers, saying “Ma’am, you’re showin’ a little ANKLE there”. For a while, ankles, elbows, wrists, and collarbones were sexual symbols, either because these parts of the body were deliberately covered or displayed. Does the environment in which the man is raised map his brain to find certain parts of the body sexually attractive?
Or it could have just been the thought of better sex. But I personally think it would take more than that to make a guy smell a girl’s dirty foot-wrappings.
MCGEOCH, P. (2007). Does cortical reorganisation explain the enduring popularity of foot-binding in medieval China?. Medical Hypotheses, 69(4), 938-941. DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2007.01.071
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