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On the Other Hand: What's so special about being left-handed?

Feb 16, 2012 09:39PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds


Human beings are “handed.” It is one of the few traits uniquely our own and not shared with the rest of the animal kingdom. Most people are right-handed; a few are ambidextrous using either hand with ease; and the remainder of humanity is left-handed. No one really knows why we’re “handed” or, for that matter, why we’re not, like other invertebrates, ambidextrous. What is known is that between 10 and 13 percent of the population is left-handed. Here’s another puzzle: If we do have to be handed, why isn’t it a 50-50 split? The answer to that one may point to evolution, and cavemen using primitive tools and hand gestures. Uniformity expedited tasks and communications. Lefties may have been weeded out over thousands of years—but not completely. It seems we are a stubborn lot, and there may be some very good reasons as to why we prevailed. What is known is that handedness relates to which side of the brain rules. Right-handed folks are left brain dominant, lefties the reverse. (Explaining the cheeky magnet on my refrigerator proclaiming that “Left-handed people are the only ones in their right minds.”)

TALENT TO SPARE

Although it isn’t completely cut and dry, it is believed that the left side of our brains control language, math, and logic. The right hemisphere specializes in spatial abilities, face recognition, visual imagery, and music. Of course we use both sides of our brain. (I may be left-handed, but I’m logical enough to figure that out.) Hemisphere dominance may mean that we are just a bit stronger in the areas located in our own dominant sides.

Even a cursory search of history would seem to corroborate the effects of hemisphere dominance on humans’ aptitudes. Looking for examples of famous individuals proficient in the areas of “spatial abilities” or “visual imagery”? How about Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo? Yes, they were all left-handed. And what about those with an aptitude for music? Tough to dismiss Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Paul McCartney, or Jimi Hendrix. Indeed, the creativity cup runneth over with southpaws such as Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, and beyond-pop-culture phenoms Jim Henson, and The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening. (Well, that explains Ned Flanders' Leftorium business, doesn’t it?) And although we don’t necessarily belong in that company, I should point out that two of the four full-time staff members of What’s Up? Media’s Editorial Department are left-handed, myself and Managing Editor James Houck.


HAIL TO THE CHIEF

“People Who Changed the World” is another category with a preponderance of left-handed heroes. From ancient Egypt’s Ramses the Great to Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Benjamin Franklin, and Gandhi, lefty leaders have come in all sizes, shapes, and political beliefs. This is particularly noticeable right in our own backyard. Five of the last seven U.S. presidents have been left-handed: Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (though in school he was forced to use his other hand to write), George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Statistical anomaly-wise, that’s off the chart.

NOT ALL IS RIGHT IN OUR LEFTY WORLD

The design deck of life is definitely stacked against a lefty. That’s why you come face-to-face with us when you come up a flight of stairs and we try to go down, struggling to hold on to a banister. Banisters are not our friends. Nor are right-click mouse maneuvers, virtually any pair of scissors, electric cords on irons, evil spiral notebooks, most school desks, a camera’s shutter release, record player arms in the old days (I scratched a lot of records in my day), and turning on the ignition or shifting gears in a car (except in the U.K.). And just plan ahead for that social faux pas out at dinner when you drink from someone else’s water glass or butter their roll. There are even things that simply cannot be done left-handed, such as playing polo or the violin, for instance.

There is, however, a bright side. In addition to that disproportionate number of special people throughout history, statistics show we are also better typists (supposedly, more than 3,000 words can be typed solely with the left hand on a standard keyboard versus 400 solely with the right); are highly adaptable and great at multitasking; have a decided advantage when hitting at home plate (we’re already pointed in the correct direction to head to first base), and no one can beat us at a toll booth or drive-thru window!

--Sarah Hagerty

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