What Painting With Your Feet Does to Your Brain

The idea of developing new body maps to help injured adults, such as stroke victims, regain the use of limbs is a far possibility, but that could be one ultimate outcome of research on individuals like Mr. Yendell and Mr. Longstaff. One major barrier, however, is that such dramatic body-map changes only seem possible when they begin at a very early age, or even before birth.

“You and I could not develop that later in life because our cortex is an adult cortex,” said Cathrin Buetefisch, a neurologist at Emory University who was not involved in Dr. Makin’s research. “It’s a different cortex at the time they develop these maps.”

Mr. Yendell and Mr. Longstaff began using their feet as hands when they were quite young, when their brains’ body maps were still developing.

“I’ve always painted, from a very early age,” Mr. Yendell said. He has an older sister whom he called “very arty as well,” and they painted together as kids.


Mr. Longstaff said that, when he was little, his mother encouraged him to pick things up with his feet and taught him to write by putting crayons in his toes. He started school, at age five, already able to scribble his name with his right foot.

Mr. Longstaff’s and Mr. Yendell’s practice and ability with their feet have served them well. As a young adult, Mr. Yendell learned to drive a modified car, and he traveled through Europe with it. Before Mr. Longstaff began training with the Mouth & Foot Painting Artists, he achieved his dream of running a pig farm, which he did for two decades.

“I love being outside,” he said. “I drove tractors. I lifted straw bales. I did everything most people can do. I just like being my own boss.” Now, at 58, he feels he’s too old for that work — art, then, is a good second career.

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