In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m a righty. As a kid, I wished I was a lefty; that group always seemed to be a more artistic, independent bunch with stylish handwriting. Despite my attempts to retrain my hands and make the left my go-to side (writing my spelling sentences took so much longer), I soon learned that what you’re born with is pretty much what you’ve got when it comes to your dominant hand.
Approximately 10 percent of people are left-handed, a number that transcends all cultures. Today there are entire social networking sites dedicated to left-handers, but is there really a difference between the lefty minority and the righty majority?
Were those leftys really more artistic and independent, or was I just having an adolescent identity crisis? According to M.K. Holder, a researcher at Indiana University, even though “handedness” has been studied for over 160 years, we still can’t precisely describe what causes us to use one hand over the other, and why human populations are largely predisposed toward right-hand use.
There’s evidence that genetics determine our side preference, but scientists can’t agree on the exact process that this entails because social and cultural mechanisms have also been shown to influence our handedness. Case in point: my grandfather was a born lefty whose teachers forced him to use his right hand. More restrictive societies show less left-handedness, and clearly that’s a result of such nurture over nature. Things get further complicated because side preference technically goes beyond hands and allows some people to classify themselves as ambidextrous. (You know, kick with your left foot, write with your right hand.) Some activities, like holding our dogs’ leashes, carrying luggage, and lifting the lid off a box, aren’t strongly linked to our side preference—meaning we’ll often switch sides without thinking about it during these acts. We’re more likely to perform other activities with our favored side, like throwing a ball, hammering, hitting a tennis ball, and, obviously, writing.
Here’s another interesting fact: less than 50 percent of adults always use the same hand while stirring with a spoon, but more than 80 percent stick to their preferred hand while eating with a spoon. How do you explain that? Modern handedness studies show that hand-specific activities are the ones requiring either a lot of practice and attention to detail, like writing, or the synchronization of muscle groups in an action like throwing a ball.
The Brain-Hand Connection
Our brains are divided into two sides, also known as hemispheres: the right and the left. The right hemisphere controls the left side of our body, while the left hemisphere controls the right side (which is just silly). Some studies have shown a link between our dominant hand and the more dominant side of the brain. If this is true, it would mean leftys rely on the right side of their brains more, which is used for activities needing imagination, emotions, and creativity. (We use the left side of our brains for more logical functions like math and language.) The left hand/creative link isn’t fully supported by current scientific research, though studies from the seventies showed brain activity typical of all people found in left-handed subjects, with only a portion of those leftys having patterns of specialization different from the general population.
Still, there are people who insist that there’s a link between a dominant left hand and having more creativity than the average Jane. After all, some of the world’s most creative thinkers have been leftys: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein. But couldn’t you name just as many notable right-handers? And maybe leftys are forced to be more creative since they’re constantly being forced to navigate through a right-handed world. Whether being left-handed actually begets creativity has yet to be proven. (Ha!—you elementary-school snobs.)
Historically, leftys haven’t always been as revered as my childhood self thought they were. In fact, they’ve had it pretty rough through the years. My grandfather, a born lefty, was punished and shamed as a young student into learning to use his right hand. Many parochial schools saw a proclivity for the left as a curse, indicative of sin, which is why his teachers were so set on deterring the devilish dominance of his “evil” hand. Obviously this was traumatic for many a left-handed kid.
But where did this fear of the left originate? One theory I found floating around left-handed message boards says that centuries ago, when soldiers fought wars with swords and shields, right-handed people had better survival rates since they held their shields in the left hand, more effectively protecting their hearts. There are also verses in the Bible that some may have interpreted as casting shadows over leftys. Genesis 24:49 reads: “And now if ye will deal kindly and truly with my master, tell me: and if not, tell me; that I may turn to the right hand, or to the left,” and Ecclesiastes 10:2 reads: “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left.” Luckily, governments never decided to make laws against left-handed people marrying.
Though we’ve (mostly) passed the time when we used lore and legend to determine how we raise our kids, little ones born lefty still have a host of hurdles to navigate from a young age. Sabrina Hernandez, a left-handed mother of two from Los Angeles, was overcome with anxiety when she saw that her daughter, Ana, was beginning to use her left hand more than her right.
“Being left-handed just makes certain aspects of life a pain,” she said. “I didn’t like the idea of her having to deal with all the frustration I did. Most utensils, tools, and office equipment are made for right-handed people.”
So what have I learned since wishing to become one of those creative, cool leftys in my fifth grade class? On one hand, it is sort of an exclusive club since only about 10 percent of us are born that way. But, at the same time, whichever hand we use probably doesn’t make us inherently different than anyone else. It’s what we do after our genetics fall into place that makes us unique.