by Donald D. Erwin
I’m a lefty, and so are roughly ten percent of all humans. Being left-handed is like being in a secret club. We have our own bizarre initialization rituals, such as learning how to write "the wrong way." We pay our dues every day, in terms of the extra effort that we must make to live in a right-handed world. When we encounter another lefty, we immediately have something in common. The club is shrouded in secrecy, because we rarely mention the topic to our right-handed friends.
Plato and Aristotle puzzled over left-handers, and so did Charles Darwin. What determines this condition? Are lefties somehow different? Are they less healthy, or more creative? Plato’s theory was that left-handedness was “due to the folly of nurses and mothers” who failed to imprint on infants and children the cultural preference of right-handedness.
The actual cause of left-handedness, however, remained a mystery for many centuries. The answer was elusive, but with the advent of brain-scanning and genetic technology, scientists are finally finding answers to some of the heretofore unanswered questions. They found that lefthanders really are different, and the ways they differ are yielding insight into human diversity, especially how one person’s brain differs from someone else.
For most people, experts say, the left hemisphere of the brain takes care of tasks that are performed in sequence, such as reading and speaking; the right does more of the holistic processing, like that needed for visual perception. Most people have a dominant left hemisphere, and since each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body, most people are right-handed.
Until recently many psychologists believed that lefties brains were reversed, with language capacity concentrated in the right side of the brain. Recent scientific work shows that this is sometimes the case, but not always. Research now indicates that most right-handers follow the typical pattern, using the left hemisphere for language. Lefties, however, are less predictable. About half have language ability concentrated on the left, ten percent on the right, and the remaining forty percent make use of various regions on both sides of the brain.
On the other hand, all those parents in the '70s and '80s who made their left-handed children struggle to use their right hands may be kicking themselves right about now. As it turns out, left-handers might have the advantage in certain areas like, say, piloting a jet fighter, or talking and driving at the same time. A study published in the journal Neuropsychological in late 2006 suggests that left-handed people are faster at processing multiple stimuli than righties.
Research conducted at the Australian National University seems to back up earlier studies showing that left- or right-handedness is determined in the womb and that many lefties process language using both hemispheres of the brain, as opposed to righties, who seem to use primarily the left hemisphere for this purpose.
The two hemispheres, or halves, of the brain are pretty much identical, and for the most part, they process the same information, with data passing back and forth between them primarily via one large neural pathway. However, certain tasks, like the language processing mentioned above, tend to take place in one hemisphere or the other. For most people, language processing happens in the left hemisphere. For left-handed people, it might actually take place in both hemispheres. Another area of specialization is that of sensory-data processing. Typically, data picked up on the right side of the body (the right eye, the right ear etc.) goes to the left hemisphere for processing, and data picked up on the left side goes to the right hemisphere. In the end, the brain essentially combines the processing results from both hemispheres to come up with what we consciously see and hear.
Genetic studies have upheld the belief that left-handedness runs in families. For instance, many members of the British royal family are left-handed. It was also the case with my family. My mother was a lefty, and three of her eight children were left-handed. Studies by Chris McManus, a Scottish neurophysiologist, indicates that the probability for right-handed parents having a left-handed child is about 9.5 percent; the probability for one right- and one left-handed parent having a lefty is about 19.5 percent; and two left-handed parents have a 26.1 percent chance of having a left handed child. None of this, however, seemed to have an effect on any of my own three sons; all are right-handed.
It was long held that the predominantly left-handed noblemen of Clan Kerr (pronounced Car) in the Scottish Border country built fortified homes with battlements that had counter-clockwise spiral staircases so that left-handed swordsmen would be better able to defend them (but perhaps at the same time making it easier for right-handed swordsmen to attack upward). Recent studies indicate, however, that the Kerr swordsmen were not actually predominantly left-handed, but that they trained to wield their swords with their left hands.
Some lefties are ambidextrous, but this condition is exceptionally rare, although it can be learned. A true ambidextrous person is able to do any task equally well with either hand. Then there are those who are mix-handed, also known as cross-dominance. This group is able to do different tasks better with different hands. I fall into this group. For example, I write with my left hand, but I throw and bat a ball with my right hand; I hammer with my left hand, but I can saw with either hand; I fire a pistol with my left hand, but use a rifle right-handed; I eat with my left hand but use my right for, ahem, hygiene.
Being predominately left-handed gives me a narrow view of what it's like to be a part of a minority. As a left-hander, I'm discriminated against all the time. Not for the real serious stuff. I’ve never been denied housing, medical care, a job, or a seat on the bus, but I do experience anti-lefty bias in the form of school desks that are unusable, carrot peelers that are useless, power tools that can be dangerous or even life-threatening, pens that smear and make my writing illegible, and computer mice that cause hand cramps. My first-grade teacher tried to force me to write with my right hand, but being stubborn by nature, I resisted.
There is also a social stigma attached to being left-handed, although it is not like it was in the Middle Ages. Throughout history, being left-handed was considered as negative. In many European languages, including English, the word for "right" (in a directional sense) also means "correct" or "proper". The Latin word sinistra (from which the English word "sinister" was derived, along with various Romance language derivatives) meant "left" as well as "unlucky". There are many negative connotations associated with the phrase "left-handed," such as clumsy, awkward, unlucky, insincere, sinister, malicious, and so on. The French word gauche means both "left" and "awkward" or "clumsy," whereas the French word droite, "right," is akin to droit, "straight," "law," and "right" as in "human rights." The name "Dexter" derives from the Latin for "right."
Many of the aspects of everyday life are geared towards right-handed people. Some of them are:
-We have to use special "lefty" scissors.
-Most lefties write from left to right, but from above, so that our hands tend to smear the fresh ink across the page.
-If we grab a coffee mug with our left hand, the picture is facing away, whereas righties get to look at the picture while they drink.
-Lefties usually have little choice where they get to sit at large dinners, often bumping elbows with their right-handed neighbor.
-Lefty students have the same problem in lecture halls.
-When writing in a three-ring binder (or spiral notebook), the rings get in the way of our hands when we write on the front side of the paper.
-Many "commonly" used keys are on the right side of the computer keyboard. For example: backspace, enter, arrows, and numeric keypad.
-Computer mice are generally set up so that the "main" button is for the index finger of righties. If you want to use the mouse in your left hand, the "main" button is under your less-adept ring finger.
-Hand-held jigsaws blow sawdust off to the right side. If you hold it in your right hand, it blows the sawdust away from you. If you hold it in your left hand, it blows sawdust in your face.
-Drill presses have the handle (to lower the drill) on the right side. It's impossible (and dangerous!) to try to hold the wood or metal with your right hand while controlling the drill with your left hand.
-Lefties have to get their own "left-handed" boomerangs, golf clubs, hockey sticks, and baseball mitts. This means we usually can't borrow our friends' equipment.
-Car stick-shifts are on the right side of the driver (unless you're British, Australian, Japanese, etc.). Less frequently used controls, such as headlight switches, are on the left side.
-High-end headphones (with only one cord) have the cord on the left side. The cord gets in the way more for left-handed writers.
-Most subway entrance/exit gates take the ticket on your right side.
-When pants have only have one back pocket, it's always on the right side. Consequently lefties have to fumble around for their wallet with their "bad" hand.
-Mini propane camping stoves are designed so that you can hold it with your left hand and pump up air pressure with your right, even if the stove is still hot. It's hard to hold it with your right hand and pump with your left hand without burning your right hand.
-Camera shutter buttons are usually on the right. Pressing the button with our less-dextrous hand makes it harder for lefties to hold the camera steady while taking a picture.
-"Ergonomic" chairs usually have the controls on the right side.
Left handedness has been a large part of folklore and superstition for thousands of years. The Devil has also been associated with the left hand in various ways and is normally portrayed as being left-handed in pictures and other images. In the seventeenth century it was thought that the Devil baptized his followers with his left-hand, and there are many references in superstitions to the "left-hand side" being associated with evil. For example, the following superstitions have been prevalent at one time or other:
- In France it was held that witches greet Satan "avec le bras gauche" or with the left hand. It is also considered that we can only see ghosts if we look over our left shoulder and that the Devil watches us over the left shoulder.
- Evil spirits lurk over the left shoulder; those who believe that throw salt over this shoulder to ward them off. In Roman times, salt was a very valuable commodity, giving rise to the word "salary" and was considered a form of money at the time, thus buying off evil spirits.
- If salt was spilled it was considered very bad luck, and could only be avoided by throwing some of the spilled salt over your left shoulder to placate the devil.
- Joan of Arc (burned at the stake in 1431 for being a heretic and a witch) was not necessarily left-handed, but many believe she was depicted in this way to make her seem evil.
- Getting out of bed with the left foot first means that you will have a bad day and be bad tempered, i.e. getting out of bed the wrong side.
- A ringing in the right ear means that someone is praising you. In the left ear it means that someone is cursing or maligning you.
- An itchy right palm means that you will receive money. An itchy left palm means you will have to give away money.
- Wedding rings worn on the third finger of the left hand originated with the Greeks and Romans, who wore them to fend off evil associated with the left-hand.
- The Romans originally considered the left to be the lucky side, but they later changed to the earlier Greek belief that favored the right-hand side.
- If you hear the sound of a cuckoo from the right it will be a lucky year. If the sound comes from the left it will be unlucky.
- The Meru people of Kenya believed that the left-hand of their holy man has such evil power that he had to keep it hidden for the safety of others.
- If your right eye twitches you will see a friend, if it's your left eye that twitches you'll see an enemy.
- Dressmakers believed it was bad luck to sew the left-hand sleeve onto a garment before the right sleeve.
- When leaving to go on a journey, if your right foot itches you're bound to have a good journey. If your left foot itches it will end in sorrow.
- It was thought (and some still believe) that it was bad luck to pass a drink to another person with your left-hand or counter-clockwise around a table.
- Passing or pouring wine with the left hand leads to bad luck.
- A left-handed toast is tantamount to a curse on the victim.
Many well-known and famous people were left-handed. Of the forty-three Presidents of the United States, seven were lefties. They were:
James A. Garfield (1831-1881) 20th
A few of the better-known famous/historical people who are (or were) left-handed:
Alexander the Great