If you’re left-handed, or you know someone who is, you may be interested to know that August 13th marks Left Handers Day, an unofficial international holiday since 1976. The day is a fun way to celebrate the gift of being left-handed. While left-dominant people make up just a small percentage of the world's population, there is both an interesting history and science behind left-handed people worth learning more about.
Globally, around 10 percent of the population are lefties, with slightly more men than women having a dominant left side. Recent studies have suggested the proportion of left-handed people is increasing. This may be due to growing social acceptability: historically, left-handed people have been forced to learn to write with their right hand due to cultural and societal pressures. However, with fewer people being forced to write with their right hand, the number of left-handed people appears to be growing.
The brain is incredibly complex but put simply, each side of the body is controlled by the opposite side of the brain. In right-handed people, the left hemisphere of the brain is dominant, meaning that the right side of their bodies tends to be stronger, with greater dexterity. In left-handed people, it works the other way around: the right hemisphere of the brain is dominant, so the left side of the body tends to be stronger and its movements more accurate.
For a long time, it was believed that babies were born ambidextrous, meaning they are both left- and right-handed. However, there is new evidence suggesting babies in the womb may prefer to use one hand over another, and that there could be a genetic component to handedness. Regardless, most babies use both hands equally up until about 18 months, at which time most will start to show a preference. By about four years old, most of us have settled on using one hand or the other.
The Incas had a positive view of left-handed people, believing they possessed special healing powers. However, in some Asian and African cultures, being left-handed is not seen as favorably, partly due to its connection with personal hygiene tasks, and it is common for left-handed people to have to learn to become right-handed. Forced conversion was also common across the English-speaking world and Europe until the late 20th century.
The Christian belief that being at God's right side is the utmost honorable position led to left-handed people being shunned or even persecuted. Subtle stigma still persists in some European languages. For example, the French word "gauche," which means "left," became a synonym for "clumsy" in English. Compare this to "adroit," which means "right" in French but can also mean "skilled" in English. Similarly, the Latin for left, "sinistra," has given us the English word "sinister," but "dexter," the Latin word for "right," is the root of the English word "dexterity."
Generally, the left hemisphere of the brain is thought to control logic and speech, whereas the right side of the brain is said to be responsible for holistic thought and creativity. This has led to some assumptions about right-handed people being more eloquent and logical, and left-handed people being more intuitive and creative. However, research has found that most people use both sides of the brain together during activities, as the two hemispheres are strongly connected through central bundles of nerve fibers. One large study has shown that this is even more true of left-handed people, meaning that they may turn out to have the edge when it comes to verbal and language skills.
Even in enlightened times, it can be a struggle being left-handed in a right-handed world. Everyday objects like scissors and can openers can prove tricky to master, as can musical instruments. When you think about it, even the way we write across the page from left to right favors those who are right-handed, as they don’t tend to smudge the ink as they go. In recent decades, manufacturers have jumped to fill this gap in the market, and it’s now possible to buy a wide selection of lefty-friendly utensils in specialist stores.
Being left-hand has long been associated with unique artistic talent, with recent examples including Lady Gaga and legendary Beatles musician Paul McCartney. Artists Leonardo Da Vinci and Paul Klee were also lefties. Guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain were also left-handed, though they learned to play and typically used right-handed guitars.
Being left-handed can be a real advantage when playing many different sports: an estimated 25 percent of major league baseball players are southpaws. Many world-class tennis players like Rafael Nadal and Martina Navratilova are also lefties. The theory is that the condition may give these players an advantage by confusing opponents trying to predict the direction of the ball.
Although math, science, and technology are traditionally seen as areas where "logical" right-handed people have an advantage, it turns out the creative flair so often harnessed by lefties can help them to stand out from the crowd in this field, too. Famous left-handed individuals in this area include Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Alan Turing. Southpaw techie Bill Gates has also helped revolutionize our world.