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December 11, 2013

Left-Handedness Isn’t the Problem It’s Made Out to Be.

Are you left-handed? Well, you’re probably A-Okay.

I’m looking at my hands.

Our hands—much like our eyes—can be a gateway to our lives and our personalities. (My mother always told me this growing up.

My right hand is wearing my grandmother’s heirloom diamond ring and my left hand is wearing my own set of three gem and platinum wedding bands.

My nails still have the festive black and silver glittered polish that I put on for Friday night’s holiday party. The veins stick out, quite a lot actually. My skin is soft but dry from being out in the frigid, December air.

My left hand reaches over for my coffee mug. It’s hand-painted (although I don’t personally know the artist). My right hand barely takes a break from clickity-clacking while I sip.

I’m not sure yet, but I think my daughter will be a lefty.

I was supposed to be a lefty, but I didn’t figure this out until I had already struggled to learn how to write with my right hand.

I remember gripping my pencil exhaustively and trying to scratch out my name while looking over at my identical twin’s perfect cartoon-drawn people. (She was known as “the artist.”)

I remember, too, struggling to learn to wash myself in the bathtub with my right hand, even with my tiny mitten-like washcloth on to help. (To be fair, I have an insanely early memory—these are from when I was probably two and already having regular, daily memories from this period. My earliest, vivid recollections are from well before I was one—my twin sister’s are the same.)

I remember dribbling a basketball with my left hand unconsciously—until my elementary school gym teacher pointed out that it’s interesting I always interpret the sports we’re taught with my left hand. (Do you write with your left?—I remember the surprised look on his inquisitive face when I said no.)

My parents will probably be upset when they read this, even though all of these memories have been recalled to them before.

I know it bothers them that they didn’t pick up on these problems, but this is readily explained by my internalization of these effortful battles.

I watch my daughter’s tiny hands, with chipped fuschia nail polish, and I want her to not work unnecessarily the way that I did, although I can plainly see that if I hadn’t gone through this experience personally, that she would also most likely go through it herself.

For example, when a friend was coloring with her she instinctively put the crayon in my daughter’s right hand—and my daughter didn’t correct it. She just colored less enthusiastically and eventually got bored. I made mention that the next time she should set the crayon down and let my daughter choose which hand to place it in.

She did and my daughter chose her left hand—leaving this friend amazed at her scribbles, doodles and easy childhood excitement.

And how many of us don’t even know that we’ve gone through this?

Either because we don’t remember it or even recognize it.

Surely, we no longer scold children the way that my great-grandmother was disciplined (left-handedness runs in my family) when she tried using her left hand in the classroom—with a ruler to the knuckles. Still, the only reason I even know about my own experience is that I broke my right wrist—twice—as an awfully young child and by the second time of being forced to do my ordinary tasks with my left hand, I realized that what should have been a challenge was actually much easier.

I recently read this NPR article after it showed up in my Twitter newsfeed.

Many of us know about the “evil” connotations of the left hand throughout our human history (‘left’ and ‘left-hand’ means ‘sinister’ in Latin and Italian and ‘dishonest’ in Mandarin), but I was shocked to learn that this hasn’t entirely been discounted or, rather, that some people are still trying to promote it. (Which includes the prestigious Yale University.)

This thoughtful article by Emily Siner begins like this:

“I recently stumbled upon a description of research out of Yale that suggested there was a link between left-handedness and psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.

Forty percent of those with psychotic disorders are lefties, one of the researchers said. That startled me. Only about 10 percent of people in the general population are left-handed. I’m one of them.

I’ve often read that I’m going to die earlier. Also, I’m bad with scissors. And now, it seemed, I’m at high risk for mental illness. Was my hand preference a lifelong curse?

The short answer: No.”

Now you have to consider that I’m thinking not only of my own natural lefty inclinations, but also that of my preschool daughter.

Siner continues:

“After getting both my hands on the full study, I found that the work, while intriguing, falls far short of being conclusive.

The study, published in the journal SAGE Open, looked at the prevalence of left-handedness among people with mood disorders, like depression, and those with psychotic disorders.

Researchers collected data from 107 psychiatric patients in an outpatient mental health clinic for people with low incomes. Only a third of the people, or 35, had a psychotic disorder. All in all, that’s not necessarily representative of the general psychiatric population—and it’s a pretty small sample from which to draw a potentially big conclusion.”

Um, yeah, you think?

The researchers admit that this study’s 40 percent finding is high compared to other research and that previous estimates on left-handedness in those with schizophrenia range from a low 7 percent—less than the prevalence in the general population—to 31 percent.

And here’s the biggest flaw in this potentially damning information: this entire study was done based on the simple question, which hand do you write with?

Because, the thing is, the personal story that I shared above is not at all unusual. Actually, hand preference is much more ambiguous than writing with one or the other.

For starters, some lefties write with their left and throw with their right, while some use the right hand for everything but writing, and others, like me, don’t write with their left hand because they were (perhaps inadvertently) trained not to. (Nearly everything that people don’t officially show you how to do—like open bottles, pour things, etc—I do like a lefty.)

In short, definitions of what it means to be left-handed vary even among studies—and there’s a reason why a study—like the aforementioned—would use such a vague—and poor—definition.

Psychiatrist Jadon Webb, the lead author and a clinical fellow at Yale School of Medicine tells NPR “that this simplicity helped the researchers get a higher participation rate. But other researchers say handedness is too ambiguous to determine reliably with that question alone.”

Yet, more importantly, it’s simply not true that lefties use the right side of their brain while right-handers use the left.

(Take this fun quiz. It’s the second one I’ve taken recently and both turned out with the same results: I use both sides of my brain in an almost 50/50 ratio.) 

Instead, language and speech are localized to the right side of the brain in only 18 percent of lefties, while 12 percent are bilateral, having language in both hemispheres, according to Howard Kushner, a public health professor at Emory University.

Interestingly, left-handedness might have garnered more negative cultural interpretations, but lefties are also often attributed with being more “creative.” (Which always struck me as interesting, given that my “artistic” mirror-image twin is technically the right-hander.)

However, the most accurate way to tell where language functions reside is to do a brain scan. (What?  Those online tests aren’t 100 percent fool proof?)

And, finally, Kushner says many studies on schizophrenia link this disease to weak brain lateralization (or mixed-handedness) and not specifically to left-handedness at all.

Moreover, the real problem lies in this “150-year history of trying to connect left-handedness to every pathology they can think of,” Clare Porac, a psychology professor at Penn State Erie, tells NPR.  “One of the issues … is the following notion: Everyone should be right-handed, and if not, there’s something wrong with the brain.”

Still, as Kushner points out, left-handedness has been stigmatized to the point that research is often merely reflecting and furthering these discriminatory cultural thoughts and practices.

He writes that even though “males are more likely to be left-handed, left-handedness has been gendered female in most cultures. (What? Male is the preferred gender?) These prejudices are reflected and reinforced in practices aimed at restricting the use of the left hand to the most disdained, but necessary, human tasks such as cleaning oneself after elimination of waste.”

But, lefties, never fear.

In Porac’s opinion there’s no need to worry. “I’ve interviewed hundreds of left-handers,” she says, “and they’re all pretty much okay.”

 Bonus: check out this list of famous lefties. 

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

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