Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A right look at the left

August 13 is being celebrated the world over as the "International Lefthanders Day".

Right handed greetings to my left handed friends....

The left and right are really two complementary sides. However, the treatment meted out to the left is often far from complementary. It is often very confusing, and sometimes difficult, being left handed in a right handed world. The word "right" by itself, besides denoting a "side" also has a connotation of correctness; this makes everything NOT right , as being wrong. And so , many times, those preferring the left hand , and displaying "left handedness" end up suffering.

Even language is partial. You do not appreciate a "left handed compliment"; the words meaning "left" in , say French and Latin are "gauche" and "sinister", which is as bad as it can get; however, the words for "right" are an exemplary choice : from the French "droit", we get the English word adroit, and Latin for right is "dexter" (from which we get such words as dexterous), all very positive connotations.
My son was born and spent the first 25 years of his life in India. Somewhere around the time he was 6-7 months, his grandmother's sharp, about-to-develop -a-cataract eye noticed a distinct preference for what was called preferring the "wrong hand". In India, hands and their usage in everyday life is sacrosanct. The left hand is used for activities related to getting rid of body waste and cleaning oneself thereafter. The right hand is used for eating, conducting prayer activities, intellectual activities and the like. A family discussion ensued. Twenty years before, this would have been a crisis situation with people designing ways and means to get the kid to turn right handed. Luckily, better sense prevailed , and the child was allowed to grow up with his natural proclivities.

Then one fine day, when he was eight, a special teacher was selected to come teach the child the Indian percussion instrument, the "tabla". The teacher was aghast. The tabla consisted of two differently pitched percussion drums, and the main one, the actual tabla, MUST be played with the right hand. Strong will prevailed over the boys natural tendencies, and to this day, 20 years later, the boy plays the tabla, right handed.

One has heard about the use of force in changing the "handedness " of a child , leading to a sense of diffidence in the child, occasionally manifesting as stammering.

So one wonders as to what is this concept of left handedness, what does it imply, how advisable is it to be tough on such a child about changing, and how do children react to various levels of compulsion, about changing the "handedness".

Research done by a team from the Queens University at Belfast in 2004, suggests that the hand you prefer to use as a 10-week-old foetus is the hand you will favour for the rest of your life. These scientists, studied the foetuses through scans, and identified 60 foetuses sucking their right thumb and 12, their left thumb. They followed up these children at the ages of 10-12, and found that all the right thumb sucking foetuses were right handed children , but about a two thirds of the left thumb sucking Foetuses had developed as left handed children; the others had switched over from left to right!

Turns out that even at 10-15 weeks, when its too early to be thumb sucking, the foetuses still wave their arms about; majority appears to move their right arms more. At this point,at 10 weeks movements are not under brain control or conscious control, and could be just local reflexes determined by the spinal cord.

This team suggested that instead of the brain deciding the handedness, the opposite was probably the real story. Nerve connections from the body to the brain develop before the connections that allow the brain to control the body's movement. And so, my son must have been a vigorous left hand waver while in the womb......

The Jury is out on that one.

One in every 10 people is left-handed, and males are one and a half times more likely to be left-handed then females, according to Lefthanders International.

Statistics , of course , can end up showing connections you never anticipated. French researches at the Montpelier University indicate that left-handed people are more likely to be schizophrenic, alcoholic, delinquent, dyslexic, and have Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, as well as mental disabilities. As if that's not bad enough, they're also more likely to die young and get into accidents.

But this ability to "be different" has its own benefits. Particularly in sports . Babe Ruth in baseball, and of course John Mcenroe and Martina Navratilova in tennis. Sourav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh in Cricket. Oscar de la Hoya in boxing. You name a one-on-one sport, and one can point out left handed sportsmen who were masters in their field.

Is being a lefty an advantage ? The aforementioned French researches think so. Since right handed folks are a majority, for a leftie , fighting with a rightie, would be a predictable thing. Easy. However, for right handed types, fighting suddenly with a left handed warrior would be a surprise factor, and would need some getting used to.

Turns out that murder rates in countries and the proportion of lefties in their population have a correlation. While one needn't look apprehensively at the next leftie one meets, consider the fact that amongst the Dioula of Burkina Faso in West Africa, where the murder rate was only 0.013 murders per 1,000 residents each year, they found only 3.4 percent of the population were left-handers. However, studies from the Eipo of Indonesia, show 27 percent of the population is left-handed, and surprise, surprise, there are three murders per 1,000 people each year.

This clearly explains , how despite Darwin, (and I do not know if he was a leftie), the lefties manage to survive through. Maybe they are fitter, maybe they just try very hard.

So why do people get born left handed ? Our handedness is controlled by certain pathways in the brain. According to Stanley Coren, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia , any kind of trauma during the gestation or even during birth, can mess up some of these pathways, and affect the handedness factor, as such. Turns out that women above the age of 40 having a baby, are 128 percent more likely to have a left handed baby than those who have babies in their twenties.

Sometimes these birth traumas reflect in the health problems that folks face when they are older, Bill Clinton and George(Sr) H.W. Bush both have histories of birth stress. Clinton suffers from allergies and Bush from Graves' disease (hyperthyroid). In the 1992 U.S. Presidential election, all three major candidates were left-handed. There have been six left-handed presidents: James Garfield, Harry S Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Regan, George Bush, Bill Clinton. Some sources also list Herbert Hoover, but he appears to have been more right than left.

Before the lefties get all depressed, we need to also mention that Alan Searleman from St Lawrence University, New York found there were more left-handed people with IQ over 140 than right-handed people. You really need to figure out the "handedness of Albert (Einstein), Issac(Newton) and Benjamin (Franklin). ALL lefties. Wow .

Actually, being a leftie is not to be restricted to the hands. Some people are complete lefties, hands, feet , eyes, everything. But most are a mixture like left handed and right footed. For example, when you throw the ball you may be just like the general tightie population, but while writing, you cannot sit on the same bench as a right handed person, without having a shove-shove altercation. Think of which eye you use to look through a keyhole . One eye is always stronger. If you closely watch your friend closely as he /she smiles , it will be clear that one side of the face is almost always more expressive . According to the University of Waterloo in Canada , only 57% of left-handers are also left-eyed !

Lefties sometimes referred to as “southpaws. Possibly originating in baseball, as , given a typical layout of a major league baseball field, a left-handed pitcher would end up facing south as he finished throwing the ball. Some experts say this is actually a term used in wrestling, and may have originated there.

Southpaws or not, and given the plethora of right handed instruments we use, it may be of interest to note that given the standard "qwerty" keyboard, the number of words in English that are typed solely with the left hand is in the neighborhood of 3400. Around 450 words are typed solely with the right hand.

And fancy research apart, there are some everyday things of note.

Left handers who get an interesting mug on their birthday, will never see the picture on the mug ,when they lift it too drink their tea.

A child I know went to hospital to have the appendix removed, and woke up to find an IV in his left arm. he was miserable as he couldn't do any of his drawings while recuperating. he was a leftie, and the doctor did not know that ....

If you see someone using a spiral bound notebook that is bound at the top, chances are he/she is a leftie.

A leftie who had ankle surgery, had some problem with the plate and screws used to align the bone, as the screw was bothering him. The doctor asked him to do "friction massage" using a circular motion. This guy did the massage in the wrong direction being a leftie and messed up stuff , so that the doctor was constrained to remove the hardware to the save the nerve from the wrong direction massage.

Something as simple as playing cards. If you fan the cards out naturally left-handed, the numbers disappear !

Lefties are very good at visualization of abstract geometric shapes which probably explains why so many creative people are lefties. Research conducted by Dr Nick Cherbuin from the Australian National University in 2006, indicates that left-handed people can think quicker when carrying out tasks such as playing computer games or playing sport. Connections between the left and right hand sides or hemispheres of the brain are faster in left-handed people, and fast transfer of information in the brain makes left-handers more efficient when dealing with multiple stimuli.

The aforementioned child mentioned in the beginning of this article , is predictably, in the creative field of architecture , as well as communication about sports.

The DNA , with its helical structure is like a right handed screw. However, several journals , in blatant inattention to scientific veracity and more attention to urgency of publication, actually end up printing a mirror image. Thomas Schneider , a researcher at the NIH, has actually tabulated these happenings , all in prestigious scientific journals, and even maintains a web page on it. In all these a random left handed orientation is given to the DNA spiral.

Probably goes on to show that the editors are predominantly right handed. using only one side of their brain. But on the other hand, this "creativity" in the DNA could be attributed to a leftie , maybe ? (Researchers , eat your heart out.)

While we learn to live with and wonder about the world of lefties, two persons called Coulson and Lovett from the University of California at San Diego, actually managed to do research on , believe it or not, "Handedness, hemispheric asymmetries, and joke comprehension! " (Exclamation mark, mine). They actually attached electrodes to 16 lefties and 16 righties, and did experiments, subjecting them to jokes . Among other things , they said "Differences may reflect more efficient inter-hemispheric communication in the left-handers, as they are reputed to have relatively larger corpus callosal areas than right-handers. Results support the portrait of more bilateral language representation among left-handers, and suggest language lateralization affects high-level language comprehension tasks such as joke comprehension."

Sure. But of course. That's right. (Or should I say, that's left ?)

It probably means lefties laugh more.


  1. Interesting read! Makes me wonder if a leftie's logical side of the brain is located on the left or the right?

  2. No, I am not a leftie. But couple of my friends are.

  3. I suspect that Sourav Ganguly is in fact a natural right hander who only bats left handed.

    Sachin Tendulkar on the other hand is a natural left hander. :)

  4. PLease read my blog :
    relating to handedness