Left-handers are evidently outnumbered, making up around 15% of the global population. As a lefty myself, there were some awkward times growing up in a world designed for right-handers – where fountain pens, spiral notepads and whiteboards soon became my arch enemies. On top of these difficulties we are etymologically insulted. The righteous word ‘right’ comes from the Latin dexter, meaning dextrous, to have manual skill. This is also true for the French word droit (right), whereas gauche (left) means clumsy and awkward. The Chinese use the word 左, or zuǒ (left), to mean improper and out of accord. But, worst of all, is the Latin naming sinistra, from which the word sinister was derived. Despite this obvious discrimination, I’m not going to take it personally – we are not treated differently these days. However, language has fossilised the injustices lefties faced in the past, where one’s life could be at risk if caught using the ‘wrong’ hand.
“The right hand of the Lord is exalted: the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.” – Psalm 118:16
The bible teaches that God’s right hand symbolises his omnipotence, and many paintings show his righteous angels sitting on his right. Of course, the damned, including the sinister angel Lucifer, sit to his left. This perhaps grew the roots for sinistrophobia, but it is unknown why left-handedness was originally so strongly associated with evil. Maybe it’s the different psychological characteristics of a lefty – maybe it’s just fearing the unfamiliar. Nevertheless, it explains the masses of lefty folklore to be carved throughout history. For example, in the Middle Ages it was believed that those writing left-handed were possessed by the devil and were evil, as the devil was a lefty himself. It was also seen as proof of being a witch; causing many people to be burnt at the stake for their odd choice of hand. Luckily, the high levels of illiteracy at this time were protective of such mishaps.
Folklore of this type has not only spread throughout history, but also through many cultures and societies. The Romans believed that you could purge an evil spirit by throwing salt only over your left shoulder. Muslims believe that good spirits speak into the right ears of people, and evil spirits to the left. Indian and Chinese etiquette expects you to use your right hand to give, eat and receive things, and never the left.
There is obviously a strong historical connection of left-handers to evil and impurity. Fortunately for us, we have gone from being burnt at the stake to being allowed to write with our preferred hand at school, instead of being ‘corrected’. It has been found that stongly favouring a certain hand (whether left or right) is a quality seen in more evolved beings: it is unique to our race. Where we show an asymmetrical brain due to this characteristic, our chimp derivatives show a more symmetrical brain and do not tend to favour either hand. Our strong sense of handedness begins to develop before we are even born, where a difference in gene activation already begins to occur in the left and right sides of our brains, according to the New Scientist.
The Heritability of Handedness
For a long time it was under question what exactly caused some people to favour their left hand, but it was clear that it ran in families. Subsequent studies suggested that this was not just theory, as a gene that affected handedness was found: a gene named LRRTM1. After 20 research centres around the world finally discovered this, scientists at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford speculated that it was responsible for modifying the asymmetry of the brain. LRRTM1 has also been proposed to slightly increase the risk of schizophrenia, as schizophrenics tend to have unusual patterns of handedness and brain asymmetry. This is a loose connection however – no need to worry if you are a lefty yourself!
So, the finding of this gene tells us that if your parents are left-handers, you are more likely to be one. This is due to ‘alleles’; where there are two forms of a gene at the same point on a chromosome. These two forms will show different characteristics in the parents’ offspring depending on which alleles are possessed by the parents. The two alleles important in handedness are D (for dextral) and C (for chance). The child will have a combination of these two alleles, resulting in either DD, DC, or CC; one from each parent. As the name entails, children with the two dextral (DD) alleles will be right-handed. The majority of those with DC will also be right-handed, and the CC combination creates a 50% chance of the child being a lefty. This explains the small percentage of left-handers in the world, where the D gene is evidently more frequent. The small chance of becoming a lefty also makes us question why there are left-handers about in the world – are we at an evolutionary cost or advantage?
Do Lefties Have the Upper Hand?
There are a number of alleged advantages to being left-handed, but there are some surprising downsides to match. Unfortunately, a lot of handedness research is speculative and inconclusive, as many contradictions occur throughout different studies; something to note before reading on. Amongst our claimed positive attributes, however, is that left-handedness is associated with intelligence, and this is supported by the fact that 20% of MENSA are lefties. With Isaac Newton also being left-handed, we could feel quite proud. One study has discredited this by finding that lefties only exceed righties on average by one IQ point.
Still, there is some data to boast about, where studies on educated left-handed men found that they earnt 13% more than their right-handed rivals. This maybe explains the rise of men such as Bill Gates, and the 4 out of the 5 Mac designers who all use their unlikely hand. Men are also more likely to be left-handed than women, and both left-handed genders have a higher likeliness to be homosexual (up to 50% of men and 90% of women in some studies!). Either way, handedness in both genders has been dated back to 300,000-400,000 BP. Some have argued that using left-handed tools in combat gave our ancestors an advantage over righties, as they find it harder to predict counteract attacks as the sides are flipped. This is still true to this day in sports such as fencing, tennis and rounders. However, this could have been a selection pressure for our ancestors, explaining the presence of lefties in society today.
Where we may be better in combat, it has been reported that homicide rates in societies are linked to left-handed frequency. Maybe this is where our evil prejudice has been predated from, and can be explained, seeing as we apparently have a harder time controlling our emotions. We are not only said to be angrier than righties, but more inhibited and more negative. This negativity is due to our brain being wired differently, where we process emotions in an alternative way. It has been claimed that lefties have a tendency to write lists and colour code things; to organise and therefore alleviate this negativity.
On top of feeling this stress, we feel fear more than righties. A study by Dr. Carolyn J. Choudhary of Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, investigated the effect of an 8 minute clip of the film Silence of the Lambs upon a mixed audience. The lefties were found to exhibit symptoms comparable to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, by giving a fragmented account of the clip when asked to report it. I hate to add to the negatives – maybe I cannot help due to the wiring of my brain – but we have been reported to have a shorter life span as well. Luckily, this finding has been completely discredited, after one study started the myth by finding a 9 year difference in longevity. This study hypothesised that the use of dangerous right-handed equipment or a reduced immune system were to blame. Maybe, a contributing factor could have been that lefties are apparently 3 times more likely to become alcoholics.
Using Kurt Cobain as an example of a famous left-hander, perhaps this extends to drug addiction as well. But, lefties have been said to have a more creative mind. Musicians such as Hendrix, CPE Bach, Freddie Mercury and Eminem, to name a few, back up this idea. On top of this, great comedic writers such as Matt Groening, Jim Henson (Kermit the Frog included) and the legendary Leonardo da Vinci prefer the left over the right. Some experiments account for this improved creativity, where lefties also showed greater musical skill and mathematical abilities. Maybe these benefits counteract our alcoholic tendencies or apparently uncontrollable emotions.
We can’t be too disadvantaged, though, as lefties appear to have the edge in politics, with Barack Obama representing this idea. This is also true for Reagan, Clinton and Bush (senior not junior – otherwise this would be nothing to brag about!). Some believe that this is due to the campaign propaganda imagery. When a predominantly right-handed audience watches Obama putting his thumbs up on TV, or waving his arm, it will be his left. But due to the reversed view, it will look like his right side, and this may make them favour him.
A Connection to the Supernatural
So there are many good and bad things about being a lefty, even if little are for certain. Although we are not treated as evil these days, it is interesting how well we fit in despite having brains that process so differently. Maybe some of these traits, like our emotional tendencies or creativity, contribute to our strong association with witchcraft and the devil. On the other hand, the Incas believed that this magical association was a good thing. They believed that left-handers possessed incredible spiritual abilities, including healing powers. This differs greatly from the Christian belief that the devil baptised his followers with his predominant left hand. Either way, these myths are united with a strong connection of left-handers to the surreal and supernatural, whether good or bad. In the real world, however, our place in evolution is still a mystery to many – do we provide an alternate, creative way of thinking? Or are we more accident prone and less adapted in a world made for right-handers?