All those parents in the ’70s and ’80s who made their left-handed children struggle to use their right hands may be kicking themselves right about now. As it turns out, left-handers might have the advantage in certain areas like, say, piloting a jet fighter or talking and driving at the same time. A study published in the journal Neuropsychology in late 2006 suggests that left-handed people are faster at processing multiple stimuli than righties.
The research conducted at the Australian National University (ANU) seems to back up earlier studies showing that left- or right-handedness is determined in the womb and that many lefties process language using both hemispheres of the brain, as opposed to righties, who seem to use primarily the left hemisphere for this purpose.
The two hemispheres, or halves, of the brain are pretty much identical, and for the most part, they process the same information, with data passing back and forth between them primarily via one large neural pathway. However, certain tasks, like the language processing mentioned above, tend to take place in one hemisphere or the other. For most people, language processing happens in the left hemisphere. For left-handed people, it might actually take place in both hemispheres. Another area of specialization is that of sensory-data processing: Typically, data picked up on the right side of the body (the right eye, the right ear, etc.) goes to the left hemisphere for processing, and data picked up on the left side goes to the right hemisphere. In the end, the brain essentially combines the processing results from both hemispheres to come up with what we consciously see and hear.
The research adds to the slowly growing body of work supporting the hypothesis that people who favor their left hand for writing probably have brains that are more conducive to simultaneous, bi-hemisphere processing of information. The ANU researchers set up tests intended specifically to test the speed of information flow between the two sides of the brain. There were 80 right-handers and 20 left-handers involved in the study. In one test, a computer would show a single dot either to the left or to the right of a dividing line, and the subjects had to press a button to indicate which side the dot showed up on. The left-handed subjects were faster overall at this task. In another test, subjects had to match up multiple letters that appeared in some cases on either side of the line and in other cases on just one side of the line. In this test, the left-handed subjects were faster at matching letters that appeared on both sides of the line, while the right-handed subjects were quicker at matching up letters that appeared on only one side of the line. This latter observation could indicate that righties are faster than lefties at processing stimuli that targets only one hemisphere of the brain.
According to lead researcher Dr. Nick Cherbuin in an interview with AM ABC, the results support the anatomical observation that the major “connection between the left brain and the right brain” is “somewhat larger and better connected in left-handers.”
So what does this mean? It could mean that left-handers have a slight advantage in sports, gaming and other activities in which players face large volumes of stimuli being thrown at them simultaneously or in quick succession. Theoretically, they could more easily use both hemispheres of the brain to manage that stimuli, resulting in faster overall processing and response time. It could also mean that when one hemisphere of the brain got overloaded and started to slow down, the other hemisphere could more easily pick up the slack without missing a beat. Experts also theorize that left-handed people could do better mentally as they move into old age and overall brain processing starts to slow down: With a greater ability for one brain hemisphere to quickly back up the tasks of the other, left-handed seniors could retain mental quickness longer than their right-handed counterparts.
Are lefties better at sports?
Bring up left-handedness in a conversation and the lefties in your midst will inevitably steer the discussion into all-too-familiar territory. Unless you happen to live in a culture where southpaws are still persecuted as witches, you’ll quickly find them talking up just how freaking awesome they think they are.
Perhaps this brash pride stems from childhoods full of right-handed scissors and writing desks. Maybe it’s all that elbow bumping with righties at the dining table. Whatever their reasons, give them enough time and they’ll inevitably bring up some of the notable celebrities and historical figures who share their bizarre physical condition, everyone from Phil Collins to Charlemagne.
If you have to endure a rant from a left-handed sports fan, they’ll probably rattle off such superstars as Arnold Palmer, Bobby Orr, John McEnroe and Oscar De La Hoya and Babe Ruth (although the Babe supposedly wrote right-handed). All told, the list of southpaw sports stars is actually pretty impressive, especially when you consider that lefties only account for roughly 10 percent of the human population — a number that has remained steady for more than 10,000 years.
While the same can’t be said for lefties, numbers don’t lie. A disproportionately high percentage of left-handed athletes have long dominated the world of sports. So what gives? Do they really have something special going for them, or are cabals of devious lefties merely trying to spin a right-handed world in their favor?
Continuing this article, we’ll explore the impact that left-handedness has on the world of sports, as well as brutal hand-to-hand combat. We’ll also look at the way in which similar examples of polymorphism, or genetic variation, are expressed in other organisms and how it affects the biggest game of all: survival of the fittest.
As it turns out, there’s no arguing with the lefties on the issue of left-handed dominance in sports. In athletic contests that involve competing one on one, such as boxing and tennis, they possess an advantage that has everything to do with surprise and nothing to do with witchcraft.
Obviously, left-handedness isn’t a fate anyone chooses for themselves. Some researchers theorize that it can be triggered by birth or gestational trauma. Age also plays a role, as mothers over 40 are 128 percent more likely to give birth to a lefty than younger moms in their 20s. But humans aren’t alone. Left-handedness or its equivalence occurs in a variety of different animal species and, interestingly enough, many experience some sort of lefty advantage as well.
As hilarious as the mental image may be, sea snails don’t play basketball. Yet while these slimy little crawlers don’t have hands, their left-leaning tendency manifests itself in the form of shells that coil counterclockwise, or left, as opposed to the more typical clockwise arrangement. Biologists have observed that lefty snails enjoy a distinct advantage against right-clawed predator crabs.
Many species of crab boast a special tool on the right claw to help them break through shells. Think of it as an evolutionary can opener. This adaptation helps the crab crack the more common clockwise-coiling snail shells, but falls awkwardly short against lefties. This variation in design renders the crab’s weapon useless.
The crab-snail scenario applies throughout the animal kingdom. Predators adapt to hunt and feed on the majority. In the survival of the fittest, there’s no payoff in being a picky eater. For instance, most fish species will favor a given direction and flee that way if threatened. The underwater equivalence of a lefty, however, would swim off in the other direction — a move a predator wouldn’t expect.
Just as lefties often feel left out, minority-sided fish stand apart from their school. But while there’s safety in numbers, nature shows us that there’s also an advantage in standing boldly apart.
The Left-Handed Fist
Unlike snails, crabs and fish, humans thrive at the top of the food chain. Yet while they don’t have to worry about predators, they’ve long had much to fear from their fellow man.
Whether biting and eye gouging in the dust of prehistory or crossing rapiers on a fine Victorian lawn, violence has always played a role in human society. The better practiced you were at crushing your opponent in hand-to-hand combat, the better you were at life.
Just as a predator adapts to kill the majority of its prey, so too a soldier trains to defeat the most common opponent: the right-handed fighter. Often this was merely an accident of experience — patterns of repetition worn into the human mind. If you fought mostly righties and survived, your skills and reflexes would revolve around a right-handed opponent. Therefore, left-handed warriors enjoyed an element of surprise over their opponents. In bloodier times, skilled lefties were often able to cut their way to the top of tribe. In fact, arguably the most brilliant general of all time, Alexander the Great, was reportedly left-handed.
Between 2001 and 2004, a pair of French researchers tested the theory of lefty battle superiority by examining the prevalence of left-handed citizens in areas with high murder rates. In theory, these conditions would allow them a better chance to observe, at least statistically, the lefty survival of the fittest. Sure enough, researchers Charlotte Faurie and Michel Raymond discovered lefty population percentages as high as 27 percent in violent corners of the world.
In areas where murder isn’t a part of daily life, however, we always have sports to fall back on. The same principles that allow lefties to thrive amid violence allow them to excel in games where one competitor’s skills and reflexes are pitted directly against another’s. Just as a Roman gladiator trained to battle right-handed opponents, a baseball player boasts more experience against right-handed pitchers. With more combative sports, such as boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts, the comparison is even more obvious. In fact, if a boxer knows that an upcoming opponent is left-handed, he or she will train against another lefty in preparation for it.
In contests where the slightest advantage can make all the difference, southpaws often wind up with their hands raised in victory. If the percentage of left-handedness were to rise, however, the the advantage would slip away proportionally.