June 29, 2008

Curious George: Do you have MonkeyToes?!?! . Does anyone else ever feel the presence of a phantom thumb jutting out of the side of their foot? Lownotes question--stolen direct from the Green

The full question: Does anyone else ever feel the presence of a phantom thumb jutting out of the side of their foot? Since I was a kid, I've been able to create a phantom thumb sensation along the side of my foot at will. It feels like my foot takes on the appearance of a monkey foot, and I can distinctly feel the opposable toe/thumb. Whenever I tell this to my friends, they also can feel it. Sometimes they have to hold out their hand and compare the layout of their foot to their hand before it kicks in. For most, this is disturbing. Anyone else? Are there any references to this phenomenon in the science literature? Is this some strange vestigial evolutionary quirk? Is it some sort of body-mapping malfunction? Too weird. This question was posted on Ask MeFi, and I just gotta ask you Monkeys if it happens with you. Apparently other MeFites feel it, too. I can almost get a funny sensation, but I'm going to have to concentrate later.

  • Crap! I meant to post the direct link for the MeFites' answers.
  • no.
  • Bwa ha ha ha ha. no. It's a simple form of mental suggestion. You don't even need induction into an hypnotic state for this one. You already have all your five toes. You never had an ancestor with six, so you can't feel an opposable toe out there on the side, and there's no biological or evolutionary remnant of such a limb, because it never existed. It's not like phantom limb syndrome, where you actually had a limb or digit removed and (imagine) that you can still feel it. Your toes are all still there so you cannot feel a phantom 'pre-human' toe.
  • Oddly enough, if you RTFL, many of the respondents said they felt this as a kid, apparently without anyone telling them about it, and lost the ability/hadn't thought about it since. How's that prehensile tail feel?
  • I had the belief that I could fly out of my body when I was a little kid and fall thru the mattress in bed, without anyone telling me about astral projection, too, but it still aint real. ;) More of the respondents in that thread react like I have, than relate to the thing, from what I see. I've never heard of this phenomenon before, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, cos I'm no expert, but as I say, we never in our evolutionary history (well, say for the last 20 million years of it, at the very least) had six toes, so there's no neurological basis for the experience, as there would be if you had some kind of phantom prehensile tail feeling. Cos distant ancestors did have tails, but there were never any six toed primates in our lineage, AFAIK. Could be wrong. Maybe it's nerve tissue damage.
  • Actually, come to think of it, there may well be a neurological explanation for it in exteroceptive/interoceptive displacement, where the feeling appropriate to an existent toe is displaced by faulty proprioception. Which would indicate, perhaps, brain damage or some kind of event happening in the cerebellum. In which case you would expect them to lose feeling or sense of one of their existing toes.
  • I don't know about feeling a phantom digit, but I have always naturally picked things up with my feet.
  • I have kind of the opposite feeling - my little toes don't feel like they belong there.
  • If the Cap't didn't have a foot fetish, he does now.
  • Ooooh, me too, Lara. I can totally understand people who have the dexterity to paint with their feet. I'm not THAT good, but I can pick up a quarter and put my socks on without any hands.
  • I never had the feeling of a phantom toe or thumb, but as a kid I could sense how much my body would grow. So, if I would feel around my feet, I could sense how much space my later feet would occupy. And those 'predictions' were borne out by my future growth. Enh.
  • Always enjoyed slipping gloves over my feet and making monkey noises, but five digits per foot is plenty for me, thanks.
  • Interesting! I did briefly feel my big toe as being more of a thumb (i.e. sticking out from the side). Here's what I think is happening: we usually think of our big toe as ending at the point when it divides off from the 2nd toe (the index toe?). However, if you look at your bare foot, the bones of your big toe actually end 1-3 inches below that point. Your big toe basically ends in the middle of the ball of your foot. Look down and wiggle your toes and you'll see what I mean. (It's okay, I'll wait.) Now look at your hands. The structure and placement of your thumb is not very different from that of your big toe. Except that your thumb is separated from the rest of your fingers by a big gap in the flesh. I think what's happening with this "illusion" is the difference between feeling your feet from the inside, rather than looking at them from the outside. It turns out that you don't have very accurate proprioception for the flesh filling in the space between your big toe and 2nd toe. (I don't, anyway.) From an internal perspective, it's hard to tell the difference between the layout of your feet versus the layout of your hands. So it's natural that your big toe might briefly feel kinda thumb-like. That's my take on it, anyway. I have actual work I should be doing, instead of writing up ridiculously detailed comments on Monkeyfilter. (Does it show?)
  • Yes. Mechagrue, I think you've got it! I don't really feel like I've got an extra toe or a thumb, it feels like a chimp's feet looks.
  • More like the phantom memory of that toe's ancient position, rather than an extra one (that never was there to begin with), isn't it? That makes sense. my little toes don't feel like they belong there. That's very weird, TUM. Extreme cases relating to Body Identity Disorder have people desiring to have limbs amputated. Quite creepy. I can pick up a quarter and put my socks on without any hands. Now that's something I'd like to see, Gramma. While you're riding a horsie.
  • I lost feeling in part of my foot and one big toe after a spinal injury, and I honestly do still feel a "phantom" sensation that it's there. I mean, it is there, but I can't feel it. But I feel where it should be. And I'm so frustrated that I can't pick up stuff with that foot as easily anymore.
  • Excuse me, but I AM MonkeyToes!
  • Well, get off my fuckin' foot.