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Left-handers are still a mysterious and misunderstood lot

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ARE left-handed people smarter, more artistic or just plain clumsier?

About 10 per cent of the population is left handed and many more of us switch between our hands for various tasks. Yet left-handers have been discriminated against since ancient times and many myths surround this difference.

In fact, most of the popular beliefs about left-handers rarely stand up to close scrutiny, none more so than the belief that they tend to be a little clumsy.

It may appear so, but that’s only because most of the world’s tools, sporting equipment and musical instruments are designed by right handers for use by right-handers.

An awkward world

Everything from the angle of scissor blades to the turn of corkscrews and the placement of camera buttons favours the right-handed.

So do buttons – at least for men. Ever wondered why women’s buttons do up on the left side? It’s a relic from the time when right-handed maids helped their mistresses to dress.

More seriously, many power tools and heavy machines can be dangerous because left-handers find it difficult to reach the on/off switch and hold equipment steady.

The upside of this is that many left-handers learn to quickly adapt to items designed for right-handers and this sometimes leads to a heightened manual dexterity in approaching new tasks.

Living in a right-handed world can sometimes be a boon for the left-handed.

According to the Victorian government’s Better Health Channel, “The sporting advantage includes taking the right-handed opponent by surprise. Right-handed athletes aren’t used to playing against left-handed opponents.”

Writing has traditionally been more difficult for left-handers due to smudging. But the modern world favours lefties, who have an advantage with QWERTY computer keyboards.

Some 56 per cent of keystrokes are made with the left hand and 3,000 words in English can be typed entirely with the left hand. Only 300 words are entirely right-handed.

In your right mind

It’s mental rather than manual dexterity that attracts the most common myths about left-handers. Many believe lefties are smarter, more artistic and more likely to become architects or musicians.

It’s commonly known that the right side of the brain, which controls the left hand, tends to synthesise emotions, music and creativity. The left side of the brain generally deals with mathematics, science, logic and language.

But this doesn’t mean that the right side of the brain is necessarily more dominant in left-handers. In fact, one study showed left-handers are disproportionately represented in terms of being gifted at maths.

“It is not at all understood,” says Dr Clyde Francks from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford. “We’re really at the very beginning of understanding what makes the brain asymmetrical.”

In fact, no definitive study has showed that lefties are smarter or more artistic. In the biggest IQ test ever undertaken in Britain, involving 90,000 people, left-handers scored less than one per cent higher than right-handers.

“What we do know is that left-handers tend to have a more even distribution of mental activity across the two hemispheres of the brain,” Francks says. Right-handers tend to have a more active left hemisphere.

“This may make lefties better at organising vast amounts of information and multi-tasking, since the two sides of their brain are accustomed to communicating more efficiently,” Francks says.

Perhaps this explains why a 2006 study at Johns Hopkins University in the US found college-educated left-handers earned between 10 and 15 per cent more money than their right-handed counterparts.

But there’s still much to be explained about left-handedness. Most studies have very small samples and left-handers are affected by so many social and biological variables that rigorous scientific conclusions are often difficult to achieve.

Health risks

There are plenty of other as yet unproven theories about left-handers: that they have a shorter life expectancy, are more prone to bowel cancer and pre-menopausal breast cancer, and exhibit more anxiety and even elevated procrastination.

“Some research has suggested learning difficulties, epilepsy and autism are more common in left-handed people,” notes the Better Health Channel. “However, other researchers have been unable to confirm these findings, and current knowledge suggests that handedness is not associated with learning disabilities.”

Dr Francks is equally cautious. His research at Oxford University recently discovered a gene that increases both the chance of being left-handed and of developing schizophrenia. But, he says, people shouldn’t worry about such findings.

“There are many factors which make individuals more likely to develop schizophrenia, and the vast majority of left-handers will never develop a problem,” he says. “We don’t yet know the precise role of this gene.”

And that seems to be the conclusion about left-handedness in general. There’s a whole lot we really don’t know about this curious human habit that, for the moment, simply leaves us guessing.

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