Left-Handedness With a Touch of Righty

A few years ago, I wrote a post titled Damn It Feels Good to Be a Lefty, in which I described life as an oppressed left-handed person in a right-handed world.

In a recent New Yorker blog post titled Are Left-Handed People Smarter? Maria Konivka does a nice job summarizing the history of research on the various contradictory studies about whether lefties enjoy cognitive advantages. It does seem so:

But a growing body of research suggests another, broader benefit: a boost in a specific kind of creativity—namely, divergent thinking, or the ability to generate new ideas from a single principle quickly and effectively. In one demonstration, researchers found that the more marked the left-handed preference in a group of males, the better they were at tests of divergent thought. (The demonstration was led by the very Coren who had originally argued for the left-handers’ increased susceptibility to mental illness.) Left-handers were more adept, for instance, at combining two common objects in novel ways to form a third—for example, using a pole and a tin can to make a birdhouse. They also excelled at grouping lists of words into as many alternate categories as possible. Another recent study has demonstrated an increased cognitive flexibility among the ambidextrous and the left-handed—and lefties have been found to be over-represented among architectsmusicians, and art and music students (as compared to those studying science).

Part of the explanation for this creative edge may lie in the greater connectivity of the left-handed brain. In a meta-analysis of forty-three studies, the neurologist Naomi Driesen and the cognitive neuroscientist Naftali Raz concluded that the corpus callosum—the bundle of fibers that connects the brain’s hemispheres—was slightly but significantly larger in left-handers than in right-handers. The explanation could also be a much more prosaic one: in 1989, a group of Connecticut College psychologists suggested that the creativity boost was a result of the environment, since left-handers had to constantly improvise to deal with a world designed for right-handers. In a 2013 review of research into handedness and cognition, a group of psychologists found that the main predictor of cognitive performance wasn’t whether an individual was left-handed or right-handed, but rather how strongly they preferred one hand over another. Strongly handed individuals, both right and left, were at a slight disadvantage compared to those who occupied the middle ground—both the ambidextrous and the left-handed who, through years of practice, had been forced to develop their non-dominant right hand. In those less clear-cut cases, the brain’s hemispheres interacted more and overall performance improved, indicating there may something to left-handed brains being pushed in a way that a right-handed one never is.

The bolded text most intrigued me. While I identify as left-handed because I write lefty, eat lefty, and brush my teeth lefty (among other things), I also do a number of things righty. In all sports, my right arm is the strong arm. Randomly, I use scissors with my right hand.

Growing up, I was told I was a “sit down lefty” — as if that were a type of lefty, someone who is left handed when sitting, but right handed when standing. In fact, I think what happened is that I was born left handed, and through instruction and social pressure, I took on some activities with my right hand. My grandmother, upon seeing me incline to my left hand as a baby, supposedly told my parents that they should train me to use my right hand, and my parents agreed. In The New Yorker post, I learned that historically lefties were stereotyped as especially wicked and prone to committing criminal acts, so perhaps my grandmother’s stance was influenced from a previous era. More practically, since we already had right handed baseball gloves lying around for the rest of the family, my parents rationally figured it’d be easier for everyone if I were right handed at sports. I was taught to throw right and shoot a ball right, and the rest is history.

So I am not ambidextruousness in the sense I am equally strong with both hands. In fact, my natural leftyness combined with socially-taught rightyness has resulted in me lacking a decisively strong hand altogether. Maybe this explains my poor motor skills. For example, I’m not good at tying knots or getting keys off of keychains or similar types of activities.

But per the New Yorker post, perhaps being forced to develop my non-dominant hand has led to some unique cognitive strengths. What’s more, being lefty in school-related activities (like writing) caused me to have some social experiences that perhaps made me stronger. I have a distinct memory in grammar school asking the teacher if there was a left handed desk to use (there were only desks attached to chairs for righties) and having to walk down the hallway, grab the spare lefty desk, and bring it back into the classroom, as everyone watched. The chair was old and the table rusty. I felt like an outsider. I could have used more experiences like that growing up — feeling like an outsider.

Meanwhile, as an adult, being left-handed has had only social benefit. The enthusiasm with which lefties talk to one another about their left-handedness is fascinating. I’ve signed copies of my books at dozens of tables to probably more than a thousand people now, and without exception, at every signing, someone notices me holding the pen with my left hand and excitedly says they’re left handed, too. I look up, make eye contact with the person, and we have a moment. “Strength in numbers,” I say every time, “We gotta stick together.”

(Thanks to Amy Batchelor for the link.)

5 Responses to Left-Handedness With a Touch of Righty

  1. Rahul says:

    I’m a left-handed, semi-ambidextrous person, if there’s such a thing. I throw ball from left but bat from the right. Definitely more powerful from right hand but I would slap someone with my left hand. I brush left but comb right. Blah blah.
    The same is true with my legs. For instance I execute karate “Master Kick” with left leg but “Side Kick” with my right one. Weird? Not even close. In badminton, I serve with right but play with left hand! There’s couple of more such hybrid examples.

    However, I believe we’re “tagged” left-handed solely on the basis of which hand we Write and Eat. In my case, both from left.

    Probably the only time I would feel awkward is when eating with left hand in a social gathering. In my country, that’s something right-handed people usually associate upfront with… ahem, you know :D

  2. Stuart Buck says:

    Speaking of sticking together, I’m the same: left-handed for eating, writing, teeth-brushing, but right-handed for sports. (Scissors are usually made such they only work for right-handers given the way that the thumb and forefinger exert pressure inwards.)

  3. Sameer says:

    Interesting… Why do you say you could have used more experiences of feeling like an outsider?

    - a fellow mildly ambidextrous lefty

    • Ben Casnocha says:

      Hi Sameer – Sorry for the delay in reply. I said that because I think feeling like an outsider makes you tougher, and I could use more toughness. :)

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