Recently I had surgery on my hand, leaving me functionally single-handed for a time. Here's the bad news: I'm right-handed and I was left a lefty. I soon learned that my two hands may look the same, but the left one does not behave as well as its preferred sister. I struggled. I looked ridiculous brushing my teeth with my odd hand, trying to start my car (how to turn that key?), and eating soup was nearly impossible. My left hand was quickly earning a reputation as a slacker. It seems it was left out when it came to coordination.
This bad rap for the left side is long rooted in history. In fact, the Latin word for "left" is sinistra, as in "sinister," while "right" in Latin is dexter, as in "dexterous." Everyone knows you're valuable if you're the right-hand man (or woman). Right just feels right and left feels all wrong for the 85+ percent of the human population that is right-hand dominant. I was out in left field with my left hand.
It turns out there are degrees of handedness, which can be evaluated using an objective scale called the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory. A full 55 percent of the American population is said to be "strongly right-handed," just 2 to 3 percent are "strongly left-handed" and the rest fall in between. (Test your handedness with an online test based on the inventory at hunternuttall.com/resources/handedness.)
Yet, regardless of which hand you prefer, this preferred hand is hooked up to the opposite side of your brain. So my trusty right hand is connected to my left brain—the side responsible for language, judgment and intellect. But my clumsy left side is connected to my right brain, the source of creativity, perception and empathy.
There are many theories for how we become right- or left-handed—from sun positioning to location of your liver. "My theory is that we're frequently right-handed because we're language-dominant creatures and the left side of our brain—the part that processes the sound of speech—is usually larger and more dominant," says Carl Hale, Psy.D., neuropsychologist with Neuropsychology and Learning Associates in Merrillville and Fishers, Indiana. Others theorize that our position in the womb determines our handedness. They guess that the ear which faces out of the womb receives the most stimulation, which then stimulates the corresponding side of the brain.
So as I struggled with a string of bad hair days induced by the awkward combination of blow dryer and left hand, I wondered if practicing left-handedness would have any benefits beyond a better hairdo. Turns out, there are significant benefits. Since our hands are connected to our brains, we can stimulate our brains by stimulating our hands. The process utilizes brain plasticity, our brain's ability to change at any age—for better or worse.
Here are the best reasons to make friends with your other hand:
1. Increase Your Creativity
Because brain mapping shows that creativity is housed in the right hemisphere of our brains, experts say we can stimulate this right brain through working with our "wrong" hand. This also works for lefties, as studies indicate that one hemisphere is active when we use our dominant hand, but both hemispheres are activated when we use our non-dominant hand.
In this way, we can use the combination of our two hands to create new connections between our ears. "By its design, our right mind is spontaneous, carefree and imaginative. It allows our creative juices to flow free without inhibition," according to Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., a neuroanatomist with the Indiana University School of Medicine. "If creativity is located in your non-dominant hemisphere, then using your non-dominant hand may stimulate those cells," she says.
Another national expert, Lucia Capacchione, has done research which shows that, regardless of which hand we favor, writing and drawing with the non-dominant hand gives greater access to the right hemispheric functions like feeling, intuition, creativity, and inner wisdom and spirituality. "When a dialog occurs between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, both emotions and thoughts are more fully expressed and understood," according to her website. Her book The Power of Your Other Hand gives a nine-step process for accessing our creative centers by using our other hand.
2. The Brain Benefits
Beyond the jumpstart in creativity, using the other hand helps your brain to better integrate its two hemispheres, experts say. "There is research that musicians who use both hands have about a 9 percent increase in the size of their corpus callosum [the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres], so certainly using both hands creates more transfer," says Hale, who works primarily with children with cognitive challenges, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia. "One could argue that this increase in exchange between the hemispheres could benefit intelligence or processing," he says.
Hale also sees benefits in using both hands in learning and sees a connection between being "handy" and learning ability. For instance, "Girls are stronger in math until about age 11. Then boys become stronger," he says. Why? "I believe it's because boys continue to say yes to complex kinds of movement such as building and construction that utilize both hands and develop that coordination, where girls shy from this as they get older," he says.
3. Be More Open Minded
It seems that our dominant hand may have a hand in our life choices, too. Studies show that we often favor things that fall on our preferred side and discard those on our clumsy side. A recent Stanford University study by David Casasanto backs up this handy theory. Participants were asked to imagine they were hiring personnel for a new company and purchasing new items. They were asked to make hiring and purchasing decisions based on brief descriptions of candidates and items arranged in columns on the right and left side of a page. Results showed that right-handers were more than twice as likely as left-handers to choose candidates and items described on the right side of the page. Left-handers preferred candidates on the left.
Casasanto also found evidence of this right/left prejudice in politics. He found that right-handed candidates made a greater proportion of right-handed gestures when expressing positive ideas and left-hand gestures when expressing negative thoughts—with the opposite to be true for left-handed candidates. Interestingly, three of the last four presidents have been left-handed, including President Barack Obama.
Casasanto's experiments suggest that the hand we favor may direct our thinking in many ways. Do we favor the pasta with cream sauce on the right side of the menu over the low-calorie salad because it's on the left? Would we choose more candidates on the right side of a ballot (even if we're not right-wing conservatives)?
How to reach your other hemisphere?
So with all the benefits of accessing the brain's less traveled path, why not try? "Try to engage in some kind of activity that uses the other hand," Hale advises. Try brushing your teeth, opening doors, eating (chopsticks are extra credit). I even moved my computer mouse pad to the left for a totally new experience.
I'm not sure that opening doorknobs with my clumsy side has opened doors to newfound creativity objectivity. I still prefer my right hand and celebrated the loss of my confining cast. But I do enjoy knowing that I can function without my better half. Intentionally using my left hand may even have opened my eyes to new experiences such as hay baling, swimming with sharks or even lion taming!
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