Sunday, April 1, 2012

Apple #577: Left-Handedness

I've had a request! Regular Daily Apple Reader Roxanne wants to know:

I've heard that left-sloping handwriting means you can't trust someone, but that might just be an extension of the notion that left-handed people are evil or that left-handedness is a product of the devil--my mother-in-law tells tales of nuns slapping her hand with a ruler when she tried to write with her left hand. Has there been a Daily Apple about this? I'd read the shit out of that!!

Actually, Roxanne's enthusiastic request covers two topics: the notion that left-handed people are evil, and whether left-sloping handwriting means its owner is untrustworthy. And really, the second part of that question may relate to issues of graphology in general, which is a rather large topic and one best tackled on its own.

So I'm going to take up the topics separately, and left-handedness first.

The way Rick is holding the pen is one of the many inventive ways left-handed people use to write so that they don't smear the ink just after they've put it on paper.
(Photo from The Nibster, a really interesting site that makes and sells specialty pens and nibs)

Some Facts to Start With

The funny thing about left-handedness is that it doesn't take very long for the conversation to veer off from known facts into superstitions, claims about people's character, and their tendency to be bad people. It seems like, even with all our fancy science, we still hold a lot of superstitions about left-handed people.

I'll start with the most basic facts I found, and then you'll see how quickly the topic turns toward speculation and finger-pointing.

  • Roughly 10% of the population is left-handed.
  • That rate seems to hold true throughout the world, and since there have been people. Cave paintings depict some of the people holding spears in their left hand.
  • The fact that it's persisted in generation after generation suggests that there is some biological reason why we need some people to be left-handed.
  • Some researchers think that lefties have the benefit of surprise, that they come from a direction others don't expect, or they're on the lookout for predators coming from the side where the righties aren't looking.
  • Handedness--a preference for one side or the other--exists in all sorts of species, not just humans, and not just animals. The same 10% rate seems to exist in chimps, toads, and even schools of fish. (In general, the rate of left vs. right varies a lot from one species to another.)

One study found that female dogs prefer their left paw and male dogs prefer their right. Until they are spayed or neutered, after which they don't seem to care either way. Aw.
(Photo from the Daily Mail)

  • Even though we think of people as being either left- or right-handed, it's probably best considered on a spectrum, that some people are very strongly left- or right-handed, some who prefer to use one hand over the other but do have a choice, as well as varying levels of competency with the non-dominant hand.
  • Case in point: 4 of our last 7 Presidents have been left-handed: Gerald R. Ford, George H. W. Bush, William J. Clinton, and Barack H. Obama.
  • However, Ford said if he was standing up, he wrote with his right hand. Some people say that though Reagan wrote with his right hand, he may have actually been left-handed or was at least ambidextrous.

What do these men have in common? They're all lefties! Yes, possibly even Ronald Reagan!
(Photo from Rants 'n Reviews)

  • Left-handedness does run in families, which suggests a genetic link. But researchers hesitate to say for sure that there is one gene for left-handedness. They say it is much more complex than that, since it is often connected with language preferences and capabilities, and since there is a "nurture" element to the equation as well.
  • Recent research suggests that the more stress a mother is under during pregnancy, the greater the likelihood that her child will be born left-handed. Also, if the mother is over 40, or if the child has a low birth weight, the child will be more likely to be left-handed.
  • One review of research in the field found that genetics is considered to be responsible for left-handedness only about 25% of the time.
  • One reason it gets difficult to sort all this out is because the brains of left-handed people may be arranged differently. In right-handed people's brains, the parts that deal with language are on the left. You might expect, then, that for left-handed people, their language parts would be on the right. Not so simple.
  • About 70% of left-handed people's language centers are also on the left. But 30% of left-handed people either have their language pieces on the right, or else their language parts are evenly distributed across both sides of the brain.
  • Researchers also currently suspect that symmetry--when both sides of the brain try to manage the same task--is actually harder for the brain, and it's been linked to disorders such as schizophrenia, dyslexia, and ADHD.
  • So, being left-handed may mean that you're more likely to have those sorts of brain disorders.

Superstitions and Pseudoscience

  • All this current research linking left-handedness to scary disorders uncomfortably reminds me of the way people used to regard left-handed people: in a word, as scary.
  • For centuries, left-handed people were regarded with fear and skepticism.
  • In many cultures, the left side of the body was/is considered the "taboo" side.
  • The devil was thought to come from the left (see Latin sinister) so anyone who was left-handed surely already had the devil on his side.
  • Paintings of Satan often put him on the left side of the picture because there are some passages in the Bible that say Lucifer was on God's left.

Here, Satan is in the middle, but Eve is taking his apple with her left hand. She's also standing to Adam's left, and he's pushing her away with his left hand. This is a good example of another equation that also gets made, which is that men = right and thus strong or good, and women = left and thus weak or bad.
(Image from Bartered Breath)

  • The Devil was said to baptize with the left hand. (Even today, we in the US would never swear an oath with the left hand raised. Right hand only!)
  • Left-handed women were often suspected of being witches, or vice versa (see Joan of Arc).
  • At one point, the Catholic Church, ever the paragon of tolerance, at one point declared that left-handed people were the servants of the devil.
  • Consequently lots of people were burned or otherwise executed primarily because they were left-handed.
  • Children who exhibited signs of being left-handed got whacked with a ruler to have that tendency beaten out of them, or they had their left hand tied behind their back so they would have to use their right hand instead.
  • It's not just a Western superstition, however. Lots of African and pre-Christian peoples have superstitions about left-handed people.

The ancient Egyptian god Set is the god of chaos and storms and destruction and sometimes he is also evil. He is known as "the Left Eye of the Sun." He is associated with animals like crocodiles and hippos, which are considered unclean. He is usually depicted holding his staff in his left hand.
(Photo from Ancient Treasures)

  • In Buddhism, there are two paths. People should avoid the path to the left but choose instead the path on the right, which leads to the eight-fold path of enlightenment.
  • Until relatively recently, in Japan, if a woman was left-handed, that was sufficient grounds for divorce.
  • Eskimos believe you have to keep an eye on left-handed people because they may become sorcerers.
  • In 1903, physician Cesare Lombroso published a study in which he said you could identify a criminal by all sorts of physical features, such as an excess of moles, a "primitive" distribution of pubic hair, and left-handedness. He thought criminals (and prostitutes and "lunatics") were more primitive types of people, and he said their their uncivilized or savage behavior was linked to their proclivity to the weaker, more primitive side of the body, the left.
  • He summed up with this proclamation: "left-handedness, united to many other traits, may contribute to form one of the worst characters among the human species."

Cesare Lombroso, the man who brought all sorts of superstitions and prejudices about left-handed people into the realm of 20th century science.
(Photo from

  • Ah, here we go, someone agrees with me. Harold Kushner, writing in The Lancet, says that Lombroso's ideas were eventually dismissed as "pseudoscience" and are now the subject of much ridicule. But, he cautions, a lot of studies being bandied about now are making claims that we may also soon see as rather silly. He cautions that even though we have all sorts of tools like genetic analysis and brain imaging technology and high-powered biostatistical methods, we are not immune from reaching biased and even somewhat laughable conclusions.

  • What people think of the left side shows up in the language. Here are various languages, their words for "left" and what those words also mean.
  • Latin : sinister. Our word "sinister" comes directly from there, meaning that we think someone who is evil and suspicious must be left-handed.
  • Greek : skaios, which may mean either left-handed or ill-omened or awkward.
  • German : links, means both left-handed and weak.
  • French : gauche, which means awkward or clumsy and also very outre -- in general, something no French person with an ounce of self-respect would ever want to be.

Good Stuff about Being Left-Handed
  • On the other hand (har har) left-handed people are thought to be better at what's called "divergent thinking," which means they come up with new ways of doing things, or innovative solutions to problems.
  • There's been lots of debate about whether left-handed people are smarter, but one researcher's study found that more people with IQs over 140 were left-handed. Lots of really famous smart people were left-handed: Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, to name a few.
  • Left-handed people may have an advantage on the big screen. Lefties tend to gesture with their left hands. When viewed on screen, that looks to us as if they're using their right hand. So they seem to us righties as if they are the dominant person on screen. This may be why lefties seem to do better in politics in this current, highly televised world.

Barack Obama, waving with his left -- and to us viewers, his preferred -- hand.
(Photo from Hand Facts)

  • Or, maybe left-handed people are just like you and me. Ever thought of that?

Famous Lefties

To counter what seems to be a stubborn prejudice, I'll list just a few of the famous people throughout history who were or are left-handed.


Einstein says: Ha ha, I'm left-handed and you're not.
(Photo from Jokes with Einstein)

Isaac Newton
Albert Einstein
Buzz Aldrin
Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Benjamin Franklin
Henry Ford
Bill Gates

Military Leaders
"All the decisive blows are struck left-handed" --Walter Benjamin

Napoleon said, "I want all of that over there," and he took it with his left hand.
(Image from Knarf's class at U Penn on Napoleon)

Julius Caesar
Alexander the Great
(also his wife Josephine)
Fidel Castro
General Colin Powell
Joan of Arc (or she may have only been depicted as such to make her seem like a witch who therefore must be burned)


Gerald R. Ford ended our "long national nightmare" by signing Nixon's pardon -- with his left hand.
(Photo from

James A. Garfield
Herbert Hoover
Harry S Truman
Gerald R. Ford
Ronald Reagan (and his son Ron)
George H. W. Bush
William J. Clinton
Barack H. Obama

Kings, Queens, and Other Leaders

Queen Victoria was left-handed. How unconventional, how un-Victorian of her! Here she is pictured with her beloved Collie, Sharp, at her left side.
(Photo from The Border Collie Museum)

Ramses II
Queen Victoria
Prince Charles
Prince William
Benjamin Netanyahu

Billy the Kid
Jack the Ripper
John Dillinger
Boston Strangler

Supreme Court Justices and other Lawyers

One of the tests for left-handedness is to fold your hands and see which hand is on top. In Ruth's case, it's her left.
(Photo from Felber Frolics)

Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Anthony Kennedy
Clarence Darrow
F. Lee Bailey


Escher's Drawing Hands -- possibly a reflection on what it feels like to be left-handed?
(Image from io9)

Michelangelo (ambidextrous; also his Adam on the Sistine Chapel)
Leonardo da Vinci
R. Crumb
M.C. Escher
Matt Groening (also Bart Simpson)
Albrecht Dürer
Pablo Picasso
Paul Klee
Edvard Munch


Would that we all could be as dashing as Cary Grant. Who happens to be left-handed.
(Photo from the Museum of Modern Art, sourced from the Encyclopedia Britannica blog)

Jerry Seinfeld
Oprah Winfrey
David Letterman
Jay Leno
Lenny Bruce
Robert Redford
Robert DeNiro
Whoopie Goldberg
Marilyn Monroe
Greta Garbo
Judy Garland
Charlie Chaplin
Harpo Marx
Cary Grant
Betty Grable
Dan Aykroyd
Diane Keaton
Richard Pryor
Julia Roberts
Sylvester Stallone
Bruce Willis


James Baldwin. Left-handed. Simple as that.
(Photo from Joe Vogel)

Mark Twain
Marshall McLuhan
Eudora Welty
Lewis Carroll
James Baldwin
H. G. Wells
Jessamyn West


Right-handed batters supposedly have a harder time hitting against left-handed pitchers. Especially when they're Cliff Lee.
(Photo from Observing Baseball)

Jimmy Connors
John McEnroe
Martina Navratilova
Babe Ruth
Barry Bonds
Wade Boggs
Ty Cobb
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Rickey Henderson
Sandy Koufax
Cliff Lee
Stan Musial
Ted Williams
Mark Spitz
Bruce Jenner
Dorothy Hamill
Gayle Sayers
Steve Young
Boomer Esaison
Deion Sanders
Larry Bird
Bill Russell
Bill Walton


Jimi Hendrix. Possibly one of the most creative musicians of modern times. Also left-handed.
(Photo from Jimi

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sergei Rachmaninoff
Cole Porter
Jimi Hendrix
Paul McCartney
Ringo Starr
Robert Plant
Paul Simon
David Byrne
John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten
Kurt Cobain
Billy Corgan
Glen Campbell

Good People
my dad
probably lots of people you know too

Perri Klass, M.D., On the Left Hand, There Are No Easy Answers,
The New York Times, March 6, 2011
The Left-Handed Advantage, ABC News, February 17, 2005
The Health Risks of Being Left-Handed,
The Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2011
David E. Rosenbaum, On Left-Handedness, Its Causes and Costs, The New York Times on the Web, May 16, 2000
Howard Kushner, Cesare Lombroso and the pathology of left-handedness, The Lancet, January 8, 2011
Quora, Handedness: Why was there prejudice against left-handed people?
Uncle Taz, Left-handedness
5 surprising facts about left-handed people, The Week, May 2, 2011
AccessScience, Does "handedness" exist among other animals?
Anything Left Handed, Left-handed animals?, A Left-Handed History of the World, Left-Handed Artists
M.K. Holder's list of Famous Left-Handers


  1. Extremely well-considered (as usual, of course!)!! I've often wondered about whether our dog, who has been spayed, has a paw preference, and my anecdotal findings align with the findings you cite: she does not seem to poke me awake at 5 am with one paw more than the other.

    I have a pre-follow up question to the graphology DA entry: I wonder what goodies you can unearth about left-handedness in regards to cultures that use alphabets that are written right to left? Or, even Japanese--doesn't that one go uppy-downy?

    Help me, Daily Apple!!

  2. Interesting article! I'm left handed too :)
    Thanks for another great apple ^^

  3. Hey, Zim! Good to hear from you! I'm glad you're still reading!

    Roxanne, I'm not sure what you're asking. Do you mean, is the incidence of left-handedness the same among cultures who read right to left? Or do you mean to ask something else? And yes, Japanese can be written vertically (as can other Asian scripts) or it can be written horizontally.

  4. I really enjoyed reading your article, but you've got something a bit incorrect (which might be an interesting thing to research in the future). It's been thought for a long time that language happens in the left side of the brain & other stuff happens in the right side, but actually we need both sides of the brain (at the same time!) to process language. It's thought (based on research of patients who've received blows to either side of the head) that the left side processes grammar and literal speech where the right side processes analogy and non-literal speech (this includes metaphors, social cues like intonation, sarcasm, etc).

  5. Hello! Anything about arthritis and why joints give a 'crack' sound when I bend and stretch them? And it always seems that my joints hurt badly especially a day before it rains heavily :(

  6. Hi Shu Wen, thanks for your request! I can't promise I'll be able to address your exact physical issues, but I will talk about joints cracking in general. Just as soon as I finish answering Roxanne's question.

  7. Just for the record, I am Roxanne Perri and have never asked any questions or comnented on this site so I am distinguising myseelf from the other Roxanne so I will not be confused with her. Thanks,


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