What do Mozart, Steve Jobs, Queen Victoria, Rafael Nadal, Jimi Hendrix, Michelangelo, and Barack Obama have in common? Have you figured it out? All these geniuses are—or were—left-handed, along with just over 10% of the world’s population in 2022.
Why do some people use their left hand instead of their right? For decades, the mystery surrounding “laterality” in humans has been at the heart of multiple scientific experiments. But don’t be put off by that term: “laterality” simply means performing certain activities, such as writing, brushing your teeth, drawing, or throwing a ball, with one hand rather than the other. Does this mean, however, that left-handed people are more likely to be geniuses than their right-handed counterparts? And is this difference an asset in the world of work? Let’s separate the truths from the myths.
Belief #1: left-handed people are better at sports than right-handers
Most of us have the same organs, tendons, and muscles … Yet a minority of people lead with their left hand rather than their right. Why? What does that say about our natural predisposition? Rather than a simple matter of preference, this strange phenomenon, commonly known as “laterality”, is an interesting indicator of the division of tasks in the brain, explains Dr. Sebastian Ocklenburg of the Research Department of Neuroscience at Ruhr University. “To give you a concrete example, let’s take language: for right-handed people, it is mainly processed by the left hemisphere (95%), while very few use the right (5%). In left-handed people, however, the number who manage language in the right brain is higher (25%).”
That’s not all: according to an Australian study published in 2006 in Neuropsychology magazine, the connections between the hemispheres of the brain are faster and more numerous in left-handed people, which would give them an advantage in processing information. But does this mean they outperform right-handers? “That has not yet been proved,” Dr. Ocklenburg cautions. At the same time, some scientists believe the brain functioning differently could be the reason behind left-handed people being gifted in certain disciplines.
25% of baseball players are left-handed when that number should be far lower if between 8% and 15% of the general population are lefties. More surprising still is that among top athletes in competitions where the reaction time is shortest, such as table tennis and badminton, there is an even higher proportion of left-handers. Why is that? While studies suggest that left-handed people are better at finding multiple and creative solutions to a given problem (this is known as divergent thinking), others believe it is simply a question of surprise. Right-handed people aren’t used to training with lefties and so are at a disadvantage against them, whereas left-handers are frequently up against righties. What should we believe? While it seems logical that a fish that turns left—yes, animals are also left- or right-handed—when all its fellow fish are turning right has a better chance of escaping predators, other hypotheses on cognitive superiority have yet to be proved.
Belief #2: left-handers are naturally predisposed to artistic disciplines
According to some scientists, the right hemisphere of the brain—where spatial analysis and artistic functions reside—is more developed in left-handed people, which would inevitably make them more creative. Following this logic, it’s not surprising that they’re overrepresented among musicians, painters, architects, and designers … Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt were both thought to be left-handers. But is there any solid scientific evidence to support this thesis? “There are certainly some early studies that support this idea,” says Dr. Ocklenburg. “Research carried out in the 1970s at the University of Cincinnati in the United States revealed that there was a higher proportion of left-handed students in music and visual arts than in the sciences.” In 1981, the American G Anthony Newland published a paper after testing 96 left-handed and 96 right-handed people – it showed that the left-handers were the more creative.
A study carried out on a small, unrepresentative cohort, however, does not mean much scientifically. An online survey organized by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, based on a sample of 20,539 people, once again attempted to assess the creativity of left- and right-handers. The result: there was no difference between the two. The study did, however, find that individuals who were primarily right- or left-sided (few people are actually right- or left-sided in the hand, eye, or foot) spent more time on artistic activities and were more “gifted” than others. Pure coincidence? Who knows. “We can see once again that the artistic prevalence of left-handed people is unfounded,” Dr. Ocklenburg concludes.
Belief #3: left-handed people are clumsier
You have to wonder why human beings insist on thinking that there are significant differences between left- and right-handed people. Have you ever heard it said that left-handed people had more mental-health issues, had shorter life expectancy, or were less sexually satisfied than right-handers? Isn’t this just the stigma of a complicated history for those who have always favored their left hand? For centuries – and even today in some countries – the left hand has been associated with vice and sin (Pakistan, India, Togo…). In most monotheistic texts, a lot of what is prohibited is associated with the left hand—“the Devil’s hand”—especially with symbolically high-value gestures such as making the sign of the cross or eating. Even the Bible makes it clear that believers will sit at God’s right hand and achieve paradise, whereas non-believers will be on the left, down in hell. These preconceived notions, built into the collective unconscious, had a considerable impact on the lives of left-handed people: historically, they were forced to write with one hand tied behind their back, hit on the fingers with a metal ruler at school, insulted and socially humiliated in all kinds of ways. While some became more or less ambidextrous, for the truly left-handed that was particularly difficult to achieve. That’s why a word like “gauche” (also the French for left) is associated with social gaffes: a left-hander is much more likely to be clumsy if they’re using the “wrong” hand.
The left-handed stigma ended only recently in Europe, coinciding with the end of the First World War. As tens of thousands of soldiers came back from the front having lost their right hand, they were forced to adapt to their new life using their otherwise neglected left.“These men came back heroes, and they started making the sign of the cross with their left hand as they had no other choice,” explains the historian Pierre-Michel Bertrand. “These ‘inappropriate’ gestures thus became heroic ones.” At the end of the 1950s in France, experts finally recommended allowing left-handed children to lead with that hand and since then, the number of frustrated lefties has almost disappeared.
One study leads to another
While recent research on laterality has clearly proved that stereotypes about left-handed people are without merit, other studies regularly try to prove the contrary. In 2014, Joshua Goodman, a Harvard professor, posited that left-handers are more likely to have poor cognitive skills, are less well educated, and thus are less likely to make as much money as right-handed people. Until another scientist comes along and gives left-handers their due, they can forget these results—after all, Bill Gates, one of the richest people in the world, is a leftie, but he doesn’t seem overly worried. There’s no need to brag about it, though. “Left-handed people are not more intelligent than the average person, there is no evidence that they have a special aptitude for the arts, and they are no more likely to be a genius than a right-handed person,” says Dr. Ocklenburg. As a left-hander myself, I wish it had been otherwise.
Translated by: Kalin Linsberg
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