Are Lefties In Their Right Minds?
Myths about left-handed people abound. A Westchester-based expert on the subject sets the record straight.
Let’s face it: right-handed people have an unfair advantage over lefties when it comes to everyday living. Even the simple task of clipping coupons can be a challenge for a southpaw, who either has to become ambidextrous for the task or has to buy scissors specially designed for left-handed people. But at least lefties can take comfort in knowing that they’re more creative than their counterparts. Or are they? According to Ira Perelle, a professor of psychology and business administrator at Mercy College who has spent the last 30 years studying handedness, there is no evidence that lefties are more artistic than righties. How many other misconceptions exist regarding people who are left-handed? Plenty, says Perelle.
Before one even can begin to debunk the plethora of myths about southpaws, it’s important to accurately define a leftie. Some researchers have a laundry list of attributes they say determine whether people are considered left-handed—for instance, which hand they bat with, golf with, wave hello with, and write with. Perelle says only the last matters. “In a very short period of time, you can learn to use your non-writing hand, or non-preferred hand, to do almost any task,” he says. When it comes to writing, most people have a definite hand preference.
It’s All in Your Head
Whether you jot down your to-do list with your left hand or your right depends on what’s going on deep inside your noggin. The brain is made up of two distinct hemispheres—a right one and a left one. The right hemisphere of the brain controls muscles on the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls muscles on the body’s right side. Most people process verbal information in the left hemisphere, so it is efficient for the brain to use that hemisphere to control writing too. The result: a rightie.
Does that mean all lefties process verbal material in the right hemisphere, lending truth to the old adage that lefties are the only ones in their right minds? Not so fast. There are actually three “types” of southpaws, Perelle says. Of those three types, only two regularly process verbal information using their right hemisphere. The other type of southpaw is similar to righties in that they process verbal material in the left hemisphere.
The Three Types of Lefties
Type One: The So-Called “Pathological Left-hander”
There are two potential reasons that someone would process verbal information in his or her right hemisphere instead of the left. The first case is one in which the person may have suffered brain trauma to the left hemisphere before, during, or shortly after birth, making it imperative that the brain process verbal information in the right hemisphere. Approximately 20 percent of left-handers fall into this category.
Type Two: The “Normal” Left-hander
The second case is one in which a person simply is born with his or her verbal-processing facility in the right hemisphere. This might occur in the instance of identical twins, or twins that form when a single fertilized egg splits, says Perelle. Sometimes the twins will be mirror images of each other, with one twin processing verbal material in the left hemisphere and the other twin processing it in the right hemisphere. It is sometimes the case that one of the twins may die in its mother’s womb and get reabsorbed before the woman even knows she was pregnant with twins. The baby that is born may be the one that is left-handed. Roughly 40 percent of lefties fit this bill.
Type Three: The “Learned” Left-hander
The third type of leftie processes verbal material in the left hemisphere just as a right-handed person does. These people start life as right-handers, but during infancy they begin picking things up by chance with their left hand. This behavior gets reinforced, and they become adept at using this hand. When it comes time to write, the learned left-handers feel comfortable in using this hand to pen their John Hancock. This type of leftie seems to be primarily male, Perelle notes.
The challenge for the learned leftie is that the left hemisphere is still processing verbal cues, but the right hemisphere is controlling the muscles in the left hand. This can result in a slight time delay as brain signals cross the corpus callosum, or the thick band of nerve fibers that connect the brain’s two hemispheres. To make up for this inefficiency, some learned lefties will actually begin to process verbal material in the right hemisphere as well as the left hemisphere. “They’re the ones who, when they are in elementary school, stutter and have other little indications that they’ve got some little tweaking of the brain to be done,” Perelle says. “But they grow out of that by the time they reach puberty, and they’re just left-handed.”
Truth or Myth?
So what about all those things you’ve heard about lefties? Check out four common statements about lefties to see if there’s any truth to them:
Lefties don’t live as long as righties.
Myth. This myth has its roots in a study by experimental psychologist Stanley Coren. He contacted the relatives of people who had died and asked them if the deceased had been left or right handed. His data seemed to show that righties lived longer than lefties. What he failed to account for, Perelle says, is that many of the older deceased subjects grew up in a time in which it was customary to force left-handers to be right-handed. As a result, the proportion of lefties decreased as the age of the subjects increased. That caused Cohen to conclude that righties must live longer. His study has since been thoroughly discredited, Perelle says.
There are fewer left-handers in some countries than in others.
True. In more rigid, or conservative, countries, it is still taboo to be left-handed, Perelle says, based on questionnaires he sent to roughly 11,000 colleagues around the world. Just as it was once customary to turn lefties into righties in the United States, some countries still force the switch. As few as 10 years ago, “in some rural sections of India, when a child appeared to be left-handed, they would tie the kid’s hand behind its back and if that didn’t work they would break the left arm,” he says. “And in Middle Eastern countries, the left hand is reserved for personal use and the right hand is for public use. In other words, when you go to the bathroom, you use your left hand. You shake with the right hand. You eat with the right hand. If you use your left hand, you’re insulting them terribly; you must never do that.”
Handedness is hereditary.
Myth: According to Perelle, there is no conclusive evidence that genetics play a role in handedness. The one exception is the case of identical twins. There might be some genetic implications in that instance.
Lefties have lower IQ scores than righties.
Okay, that is a trick question. People who are left-handed due to a brain trauma are likely to get low scores on intelligence tests. But learned lefties who tap into both brain hemispheres for verbal processing are likely to be smarter because they can more easily integrate verbal and spatial material. “We did a good-size survey amongst the MENSA population (those that score in the upper two percent on IQ tests) and we found that twenty percent of them were left-handed,” Perelle says. Compare that with the general population, of which only 10 percent are lefties. And while there is no evidence to prove the commonly held notion that lefties are more artistic or creative than righties, Perelle suggests that lefties may learn how to become more creative in their thinking because “we’re still living in a right-handed world,” he notes. “A lot of the mechanical and electronic devices we use are designed for right-handers. If you can remember the old television sets that had dials, the dials were always on the right side of the television. The microwave is built with the controls on the right side of the microwave. The newer stoves are built with the controls on the right side of the stovetop. So left-handers have to fight all of that somehow—rather have to adapt to that— and I think in doing so, many of them become much more able to handle the problems that they run into in the regular world.”
What about some of the other more obscure notions about southpaws? For instance, is it true that lefties are more prone to migraine headaches? Or that left-handers are more likely to die in car crashes because when under pressure they naturally swerve left into oncoming traffic, whereas a rightie naturally swerves into the shoulder? There’s simply no evidence to prove there’s an ounce of truth to them.
Are you a leftie? If so, you’re in both good and infamous company.
Here are some well-known southpaws:
Albert Henry DeSalvo (a.k.a. The Boston Strangler)
John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Sarah Jessica Parker
College Scholarship Just for Left-handers
Have a leftie kid who is looking to go to college in the Northeast? It might be worth your while to check out Juniata College, a small liberal-arts school in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, that offers a
special scholarship just for southpaws. Worth $1,000 to $1,500 a year, the money is up for grabs to left-handed Juniata sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
The story behind the unique monetary offering? In 1919, students Mary Francis and Frederick Beckley, both lefties, were paired up in tennis class. The duo got married five years later and, in 1979, Mary Francis Beckley established the scholarship with a $24,000 bequest.
Patricia Janes is the executive editor of Science World and SuperScience magazines and has written about global warming and greenwashing for Westchester Magazine. She is a rightie and lives in Tarrytown.