When Right is Right but Left is Wrong

Throughout history and across cultures, the terms for ‘right’ and ‘left’ have been used not only for direction or location, but also to convey moral standing or competence. ‘Right’ in many languages is often synonymous with ‘correct’, ‘just’ and ‘law-abiding’, whilst ‘left’ bears rather more negative connotations of clumsiness, awkwardness, and down-right Satanism. In Latin, there is no beating about the bush – the term for ‘evil’ and ‘unlucky’ is exactly the same as that for ‘left’ – sinister!

The left hand gets a particularly bad rap. The phrase ‘the left hand path’ is a euphemism for dabbling in the occult, and in France, it was at once held that witches would greet the devil using their left hands. In Christianity, God’s right hand is approving, whilst his left hand just sits there judging you. In Islam, the left hand is linked to unfortunate ancient wiping protocols… and therefore viewed as unclean.

Such persecutory views were at one time so ingrained in society that children were punished for writing with their ‘evil’ hand and ‘re-educated’ to write with the right hand, which often caused psychological damage including stuttering, bed-wetting and neuroticism. Although this practice no longer exists in our schools, the fear and repression of left-handers can still be found in various societies across the globe. And really, is this at all surprising? After all, notable left-handers include Barack ‘Threat-to-Global-Security’ Obama, Angelina ‘Insatiable-Kidnapper-and-Feminist’ Jolie, Morgan ‘God’ Freeman, not to mention approximately 50% of homosexuals, Chewbacca from Star Wars, the devil himself, and polar bears. Each and every one a clear threat to society as we know it!

Not Right in the Head

In addition to 100% of polar bears, around one in ten humans are demon worshippers- I mean; left-handed. But what causes the undeniable wickedness (and inability to use regular tin-openers and scissors) that resides in this odd 10% of our population, who presumably all have their hands sewn on backwards? What, really, is the difference between righties and lefties? Our good old friend Neuroscience, with all its mystical brain images and unnecessarily complicated jargon, has an answer.

Right- or left-handedness is thought to be determined by an unspecified combination of genes and environment. Handedness is also linked to brain structure and function. Although a lot of processes are dealt with by both brain hemispheres, some functions rely more heavily on one side of the brain. Generally, the left hemisphere is more involved in language processing. It is also the left hemisphere that controls the right side of our body, whilst the right hemisphere controls the left side (intelligent design, or drunk engineer?). Thus, our tendency for right-handedness makes some sense, as that means the hand we generally use to write out our language is the hand controlled by the language-oriented side of the brain. It would also make sense, then, that left-handed writers would show the reverse of this pattern (i.e. that their right hemisphere, controlling their left hand, does the language processing). However, those sneaky southpaws stump us with their unpredictable ways! Only about 30% of lefties display predominant language processing in the right hemisphere. Strangely, about 5% of right handed people also show this reversed pattern. We can safely conclude from this that around 5% of your friends who you thought were normal, right-handed, law-abiding citizens are actually, deep down, minions of Satan.

Perhaps that’s a tad far. What this really means is that in maybe a quarter of cases, right-handers and left-handers have a somewhat different set up in the brain. But, unless you just happen to have an identical twin with identical experiences to yours, everybody you know will have a slightly different brain from you. Our brains are constantly being shaped by our experiences – be that learning a new language, or falling in love.

On top of differing brain structure, there is some evidence to link a gene associated with left-handedness to genes relating to schizophrenia and dyslexia, but the picture is complicated by a myriad of other genetic and environmental factors. Most of the time, the neural differences between lefties and righties rarely directly cause anything other than physical incompetence in a different side of the body. So basically, when I said Neuroscience would help – I was lying. There are no real answers.

And anyway, a lot of us have tendencies for both right and wron- I mean left. Handedness is more of a spectrum, with a few extreme right or left-handers on either end and many people falling in the middle, displaying a healthy mix of the two. I myself, for example, use my right hand for opening jars and helping old ladies cross the road, and my left for writing to and saluting my good pal, Lucifer.

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