The Friday Fillip: Right and Left

Like most vertebrates, human beings are more or less bilaterally symmetrical. Sure, you’ve got a mole on one shoulder and your liver is very much one-sided. But still, it’s not as though we all had a lone tentacle growing out of a single hip. So how come left and right?

It’s a fairly peculiar thing, when you think about it. Up and down are easy: gravity does the work, and besides the sky is blue. Forward and backward are likewise a piece of cake: we’re iced on one side and not on the other. (We’re bilaterally symmetrical in only one plane.) But right and left?

Until very recently we thought that left and right was a human category; that is, that there was no left and right in nature. However, in 1957 atomic physicists Wu, Hayward, Hoppes, and Hudson proved experimentally that if magnetized cobalt-60 atoms were spun counterclockwise (a “left, right” thing, note) they emitted radiation that preferred to go the other way; and, significantly, if the direction of spin was changed, the radiation stubbornly stuck with its preferred direction.

But most of us can’t find our supply of cobalt-60, let alone get it to spin. So that deep natural truth can’t be the origin of our concept.

We’re told that our left brain hemisphere works differently from our right brain hemisphere (though what we read on left brain / right brain differences is mostly bunk); but just try sensing which hemisphere is doing what without a truckload of scanners. If you poke about or booze to excess you can, with some difficulty, find your liver there on your right side. (Ma foi!) So perhaps it’s the heart, which is tucked just to the left of the midline — your left (which comes perilously close to introducing mirrors into this fillip) — that is the telltale, the significant deviant that allowed our species to develop the concept of right and left. Or maybe it was the duller fact that something more than 90% of us favour the right hand when it comes to throwing stones.

Whatever the origin, it’s become second nature to us. Well, most of us. Because some folks find it devilishly hard to learn which way to turn, as in “No, your other left.” If they use a Roman alphabet, the easiest mnemonic, I’d guess, would be the L that your left hand makes when held out in front of you (“No, your other front.”) with the palm facing out and the thumb extended. If you’re familiar with where you are and the landmarks, you might be able to get along with the compass points most of the time, turning “North” or “West” as the occasion demanded, rather than going three blocks before turning left. But try and find true north when you’re buried in the bowels of a building.

Some people can, though. Lera Boroditsky, a Stanford psychology prof, writes that in some cultures everyone knows at all times which way is which; they actually say the equivalent of “Oh, I must have left my glasses to the southwest of the telephone.” (By the way, her whole Edge talk on the Whorfian hypothesis is fascinating.) Incidentally, and speaking of cardinal points, if the L = left trick doesn’t work for you, you can always find left and right with a compass provided you’re not too close to the pole: according to Wikipedia, “Facing the sun, before noon, the north pointer of the compass points to the left hand. After noon, it points to the right.”

All of this is just to get the concept functioning. Then the real fuss starts, which could be the subject of a good many future fillips. Having labelled the stone-throwing hand as right, every culture (seemingly) has privileged it. We don’t need to go into the linguistic evidences, except perhaps to point out that we in law are big users of the distinction; that is, having made might right, we’ve abstracted it into, well, right. In some other cultures the matter is less abstract, because the left hand is relegated to latrine duty and, so, using it for much else would be beyond gauche. Poor left. But perhaps Captain Canuck can come to the rescue — or bring some solace, at least. Seems that Canadians use left-handed hockey sticks, by contrast with our righty American cousins. (Now that blades curve, like magnetized cobalt-60, sticks come marked with L and R.) No one knows why we do it. It’s been called “a cultural quirk,” but it might be something bigger, it might be the rise of the left.

No, the other left.


  1. I’m sorry but this just made my head spin and think back to my grade school teacher who forced me to write with my right hand

  2. Susan Anderson Behn

    This makes perfect sense to me…..and in my limited view, having spent years of my life with beginning hockey players, the very best way to quickly teach someone how to be most effective with their hockey stick, is to make sure all right handed kids learn FIRST using their stick left-handed.

    The stick doesnt have to be a left-handed hook…it can be a flat blade, and work just as well.

    Why? Think about it….a right-hander, will more quickly learn to effectively use their stick on the left side, if they start from the beginning learning to hold the stick across the body, so their earliest shots are BACKHANDS.

    Its easier to balance on skates when you are new at it if you have your stick on the ice…and you are much more stable no matter which is your dominant hand, when you create that “tripod” with two legs and a stick.

    The more stable you are on ice, the faster you learn how to skate and take shots…its always easier to take a shot from the side of your dominant hand, but if in the early training, you concentrate on learning to do the harder stick-handling, from the other side, you get better much faster.

    So I’m not surprised if Canadians use left-handed sticks…it may have something to do with why we are good at the game.

  3. Simon,

    Well … there’s this sport that’s very popular in the U.S. which is called, I believe, baseball.
    The dominant hand goes on top. I suspect that If you don’t start playing hockey until after you’ve played baseball for a while, you’ll likely shoot from the same side as your “stronger” batting side. But, if you’ve played hockey for long enough before taking up baseball that you’ve settled on an upper / lower hand order, that order seems to transpose to baseball, too.

    That tendency may not apply to Canadian male right-handed goalies who catch with their left hand so use a goalie stick with a small L curve (even if they turn their stick over sometimes for a forehand shot from the right rather than a backhand). In my experience, most of us still bat right handed and often prefer to use a right-handed stick when playing out. I can’t recall if the pattern is consistent with left-handed goalies who usually catch with their right hand.

    That the USSR (historically) had few right handed shots is consistent with hockey being the first stick sport that children play.

    Perhaps anybody reading this who plays cricket can comment on the L/R split, there.

    Apart from that, the which hand you pick up the stick with is a good indicator in young kids, ignoring the effect of any other sport.

    I don’t know if the L/R tendency figures are the same in women’s hockey. That might be an indicator of something, allowing for the effect of older brothers who also played so that there were hand-me-down sticks.