Left hand versus right hand

Monday, March 19, 2007
Did you know that many of the world's great artists, leaders and thinkers are left-handed? Yet lefties only make up around 10 percent of the population. So does that mean lefties are generally more gifted and creative than righties?

Our reporter Michael Slater has volunteered to help find out.

Back in the old days, lefties routinely got a bad rap for having the "devil's hand". It was swap hands or be damned. Thankfully, times have changed but it does make Michael wonder what the old teachers would have done with him.

"I write with my left, eat with my left and clean my teeth with my left hand, but I bat and bowl with my right as well. So does that mean I'm ambidextrous?" he asks.

Professor Mike Corballis from the University of Auckland's Department of Psychology says it's not quite that simple: "Ambidextrous can also be taken to mean that you can do things equally with each hand," he says. "So if you were able to write and throw equally with each hand, that would be ambidextrous I think, so I think we'd prefer to call you mixed handed."

Mixed handed? That's a new one for Michael. But what's the difference between lefties and righties up in the brain?

Melbourne psychologist Simon Forbes thinks it's all to do with the right and left sides of the brain.

"The right-handed individual is going to be controlled predominantly by the left side of the brain while left-handed people are controlled by the right side of the brain," he says. "The research tends to support that hypothesis — that lefties are more creative. The right hemisphere of the brain is where we know a lot of the creativity is centred."

So all of Michael's creativity is lurking in the right side of his brain.

"When you look at history, we've got some of the creative geniuses from the past, you've got Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and other names, they were clearly left-handed," says Simon.

Michael visits the Brain Research Institute for a brain scan. He's a little nervous about it but dying to know, because he's a mixed hander, which side of his brain is dominant — right or left.

The telltale test of whether the right or left side is dominant is how his brain handles language. As Michael's thinking about nouns and verbs, the bits of his brain doing the work light up.

After an hour-long brain workout, next up is a visit to Professor Michael Saling to interpret the results.

"Your brain is organised like that of a typical right hander, because your language centres are all in the left hemisphere — on the left side of the brain," he says.

So, Michael's brain behaves like a right hander's when it comes to language.

What about creativity?

Michael: Do you think left-handers might be more creative than right-handers? Professor Saling: I don't think that there's any evidence for that. From the neuroscientific point of view, the idea that right hemisphere controls all that is poetic, imaginative, creative and intuitive is largely a myth.

So lefties aren't more creative — that's what the neuroscientists think.

Our psychologist Simon Forbes isn't so sure so he's proposed a good old-fashioned contest — right-handers versus left-handers.

Representing the righties are Beck and Murray. For the left is Michael and Jane.

Jane doesn't know that Michael's a mixed hander, though he does more things with his left hand than his right — hope that doesn't spoil their chances!

Simon's going to test their ability to come up with different types of creative solutions.

First up are some number sequences, it's a tough one, but the first round is won by the righties.

Next, a little accounting problem. Again, the right-handers come out on top.

The next round is finally won by the lefties but the final rounds are too close for Simon to call. So they get a point each, leaving the right-handers out in front.

So what does this all mean?

"Basically what it's showing is that every person is creative in their own way, whether it's music, cooking, art, sport, acting, performing. It makes no difference. Basically we all have our unique talents," says Simon.

Well our tests may have shown that lefties are no more creative than righties, but history suggests that cacky handers, mollydookers, whatever you want to call them, might just have the edge. As for Michael, being mixed handed, he's got the best of both worlds.

Fast facts

  • I've heard of a clever way of predicting whether your newborn will be right or left-handed. It's not foolproof, but the first clues might be in the way the babies turn their heads. If like most newborns it's to the right, then they are more likely to be right-handed. Lefties turn to the left.

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