Right, Left, Right, Wrong! An investigation of handedness - some myths, truths, opinions and research

What is Handedness?
Measuring Handedness
Handedness Statistics
Handedness and the Brain
Theories of Handedness ‣
Other Handedness Issues ‣
History of Handedness ‣
Famous Left-Handers ‣
A Few Final Thoughts
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Other Handedness Issues - Handedness and Writing
A left-handed boy writes
Because the Latin alphabet and script used in Western countries - and indeed most other alphabets with the notable exceptions of Hebrew and Arabic - is written from left-to-right, it is usually considered easier to write for a right-hander, partly because it is easier to avoid the smudging of words already written, and partly because it is easier to see what has been written and so correctly place what is to come.

It is often difficult for a left-hander to acquire a clear and neat handwriting style, and in the past (and even, to a lesser extent, today) this has led to disciplinary measures, feelings of shame and even reduced employment opportunities. However, changing attitudes, the advent of the non-smudging ball-point pen and the disuse of quills and nibbed fountain pens, has made left-handed writing a more practical proposition in recent years.

In order to write left-to-right, many left-handers adopt an awkward, and sometimes painful, “crab hand” or “hook style” of writing with a severely bent wrist, and they may angle the paper extravagantly. However, perhaps contrary to public perception, studies have indicated that actually only about 30% of left-handers (as well as 3% of right-handers) adopt the hooked writing position. This statistic has led some to hypothesize that the hooked position may be directly related to the location of the language function in the right hemisphere of the brain (see the section on Handedness and the Brain). However, other studies have explicitly refuted the existence of any direct link between the two phenomena.

Other Scripts

Interestingly, the very ancient scripts, such as proto-cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics, from which most of other Western scripts later developed (including the so-called Roman or Latin script most Europeans and Americans use today), could be written either left-to-right or right-to-left. Intermediate stages in the evolution of modern writing scripts actually see-sawed back and forth in a bewildering series of apparently random shifts in direction. These changes were due to a combination of historical, cultural and religious factors, and nothing to do with laterality or handedness. Thus, there does not appear to be any “natural” writing direction.

As has been mentioned, Hebrew and Arabic are the only major scripts that are written from right-to-left. Although Hebrew is written from right-to-left on the page, individual characters are formed from left-to-right. Chinese was traditionally written vertically from top-to-bottom, starting from the right side and working leftward, but even here individual characters formed from left-to-right. Nowadays, Chinese is now much more commonly written horizontally from left-to-right. It is therefore only really Arabic script (including Persian and Urdu) where the lines and individual characters are formed from right-to-left.

Interestingly, though, the proportion of left-handers appears to be broadly similar within cultures which use left-to-right scripts as those with right-to-left scripts (if anything, the proportion of left-handers is smaller in right-to-left cultures than the global average). The predominantly right-handed Arabs, for instance, appear to have few problems writing from right-to-left.

Social Pressures
Even in the relatively free societies of North America and Western Europe, there have been deliberate and sometimes brutal attempts to suppress left-handed writing and impose conformity in the education system, particularly in the 18th and 19th Century. This has included such practices as tying a child’s left hand behind his chair or corporal punishment for anyone caught writing with the left hand. But, what is less well-known, such discriminatory practices and attitudes against left-handers have also persisted well into the 20th Century, especially in Catholic schools.

Some other educations systems, such as in Soviet Russia and Taiwan to name but two examples, have taken quite forceful measures to discourage left-handed writing. As recently as 1970, right-handed writing was compulsory in Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia and most Iron Curtain countries. Even today, in many places, a left-handed writing style is considered inelegant and uncouth. One reason often given for the prevalence of right-handedness in countries like China and Japan is the difficulty of teaching and learning the characters used in calligraphy.

Hand Switching

A 1998 study reported in the journal Development Neuropsychology suggests that 24% of younger generation left-handers have made at least some attempt to switch their own handedness, especially their writing hands. While such a switch is indeed possible, the time taken depending on motivation and practice, it is usually limited to printing - cursive writing (which uses a different region of the parietal lobe) may always remain illegible.

According to some, children who switch their wrriting hands thereby risk some interference with their early development, and it appears that converting handedness does not result in an inversion of brain dominance, but rather results in an over-loading of the non-dominant half of the brain, and an associated under-loading of the other half. Stammering (stuttering) and bed-wetting, among other conditions, have been linked with this kind of left-to-right switch, although a more common result is poor academic performance and a debilitating loss of self-esteem. Memory and concentration disorders and emotional problems can also occur, and it is not uncommon for “switched right-handers” to have difficulty remembering which side is left and which is right. Famous stammerer, King George VI of England, is often assumed to have been a natural left-hander forced to write with his right, although there is actually no compelling reason to impute such a cause, and stammering may develop due to any number of other genetic and environmental factors.

The social and institutional pressures to switch from the left to the right hand are, however, typically restricted to hand-writing, and such individuals often continue to perform other activities left-handed. There is typically much less pressure on modern youngsters to switch hand than there was in the early 20th Century and in even earlier times (see the section on the Recent History of Handedness).

Mirror Writing

Mirror-writing (back-to-front right-to-left writing) is a phenomenon which has often been associated with left-handedness. The most famous and oft-quoted examples of mirror-writers are Leonardo da Vinci and Lewis Carroll (unfortunately, Carroll was likely not left-handed at all, merely another of those mysterious “rumoured” left-handers, and there is even some evidence that left-handed poster-boy Leonardo may only have written left-handed due to some unspecified problem with his right). Part of the reason for the association may have arisen in 16th Century Italy, when an influential text by Giovanni Battista Palatino referred to mirror writing as lettera mancina (or left-handed writing).

True mirror-writers are extremely rare, even among left-handers, about 1 in 6,500 according to some Australian research, or 1 in 2,500 according to another study. At least anecdotally, it does appear that left-handers are more likely to be able to mirror-write than right-handers (or at least more likely to bother learning), but there appears to be nothing specifically left-handed about it, and right-handers can learn the skill just as easily. Some research has suggested that the ability to mirror-write may be inherited, and arises from an atypical language organization in the brain, but this remains questionable. Sigmund Freud claimed that mirror-writing was associated with repressed sexuality (but then, to Freud, most things were to do with repressed sexuality!).

Other Writing Issues

Modular school desks or chairs with the writing rest on the right-hand side are a particular problem for left-handed writers, particularly on timed tests, and they can lead to back problems and poor performance. Increasingly, some schools are starting to invest in a proportion of left-handed desks, but the problem nevertheless remains.

Many left-handers also complain of difficulty using a standard computer keyboard, largely due to the location of the number pad, arrow keys, etc, on the right hand side. Arguably, though, there is actually some advantage to left-handers in using the standard QWERTY keyboard: overall, 56% of the keystrokes typically made when touch-typing are made with the left hand, and over 3,000 words in English can be typed using the left hand only, as compared to only 300 using the right hand.


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Introduction | What is Handedness? | Measuring Handedness | Handedness Statistics | Handedness and the Brain | Theories of Handedness | Other Handedness Issues | History of Handedness | Famous Left-Handers | A Few Final Thoughts | Sources
© 2012 Luke Mastin