In many ways, the BTSA is like a conversation starter at a social gathering, with the twist that it creates heightened awareness of our similarities and differences. When it comes down to it, we all have unique brain strengths and inevitably with that, there also come related weaknesses.
Just a few decades ago, natural left-handers were taught at school to write and/or play games using their non-dominant hand. They were taught to conform, sometimes by having their ‘wrong hand’ tied behind their backs. With years of training, many got to be quite competent with both hands but what remained was at best, a residue of unpleasant memories. And yet there may have been a positive side to some of what happened to them back then, at least when it came to using their brains in later life. Just for the record; I am in no way advocating a return to such practices, but…
Here's a quick way to assess your degree of mixed-handedness by simply staring at the spinning lady (see below). If you can see her spinning in both directions - in other words, if she switches direction - you can be sure that you are not 100% left or right-handed.
Most people know that the brain is to a certain extent cross-wired. The left hemisphere controls movement on the right side of the body, the right hemisphere controls the left side, and this is true for most animals and birds too. But being at least a little ambidextrous, or showing a lack of clear one-sided handedness is linked to greater left/right brain communication. Results published in a 2013 study suggested that inconsistent (or using more neutral terminology, ‘mixed’ handedness) is associated with increased left/right brain interaction and also increased access to right-brained thinking processes. It works like this.
A central part of your brain known as the corpus callosum integrates motor, sensory and cognitive performance across both brain hemispheres by enabling communication between the two halves. More consistent hand preference is associated with a smaller corpus callosum and also with decreased right hemisphere activation.
A 2015 study at Tel Aviv University examined the MRI scans from more than 1,400 people and found that only 2% of those studied fitted a clear-cut brain gender profile. That leaves the vast majority of us, namely 98%, as part-male and part-female, at least when it comes to brain gender terms.
What gets interesting is when we look at handedness and memory. 'Episodic memory' retrieval, belief updating, cognitive flexibility and being prepared to accept change are all associated with right frontal brain areas. Evidence shows pretty clearly that those with mixed handedness have clearly superior episodic memory and can also consider and accept change more readily. This is aided by their ability to switch information more easily across the hemispheres. Whereas to many women, this hemispheric interchange comes naturally, for men in particular, it helps to be a little ambidextrous.
Just to be clear, episodic memory refers to an important aspect of short-term memory. If for example you give people with mixed-handedness a list of words, they can recall more than those who are strongly right-handed (the sample size for left-handers was too small). Mixed-handed people also have earlier memories of childhood than others and fewer general day-to-day memory issues.
In contrast, 'semantic memory' tasks such as general world knowledge that we have accumulated throughout our lives is lateralized to the left hemisphere and associated more closely with ‘strong handedness’.
Mixed-handedness is linked to cognitive flexibility, so those with more dominant left or right-handed patterns tend to be more stuck in their ways, being also more skeptical and less open to persuasion. The 2013 study also showed that mixed-handers tend to be more creative, while those with consistent handedness are more focused and to their possible advantage, less gullible.
“As it turns out, handedness predicts certain kinds of aesthetic judgments, with ‘mixed’ handedness showing more appreciation for self-referential works by M.C. Escher, a wider variety of musical genres while, consistent-handers are less sensation seeking, exhibit greater consumer brand loyalty, have greater disgust sensitivity and score higher on measures of Right Wing Authoritarianism.”
In earlier research carried out in 1995, Aparna Ramachandran hypothesized that the right hemisphere’s job is to look out for inconsistencies and communicate them to the left hemisphere. He particularly referred to belief updating and cognitive flexibility, adding weight to the current belief that greater corpus callosal connectivity demonstrates superior episodic, but not semantic memory.
Other research takes us deeper into the mind/handedness connection.
Let’s bring this closer to home. Are there lessons for education and society in general? After all, given the incredible complexity of the brain, most of these findings refer to correlation rather direct causation. Can we trust the information?
One thing is clear. Knowing what we do now: mixed-handers will be more likely to consider the value of this information than those at the extremes of single-handedness, who are in general more convinced of their views.
I would argue that in today’s fast-changing world, we do not have time to wait for definitive, neurological proof. The job of schools is after all to prepare students for their future lives and we need to consider the clear link between greater use of both hands with creativity... and being able to accept change more easily. To cope with the modern world and have a chance of making it a better place, we need to encourage the development of both sides of the brain, and at least part of that academic recipe is in encouraging the use of both hands.
When it comes to the UK, the opposite seems to be true. The government has identified the need for more scientists and thinks that by simply encouraging the study of science subjects, they will achieve this goal. In late 2014, the UK’s then Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan said: “The subjects to keep young people’s options open are STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.” And last summer, Ofqual revealed a five-fold decline in the number of pupils taking GCSEs in arts subjects over the past year.
In my humble opinion as a non-educator, this is not the right way to go. An earlier, youthful focus on left-brained scientific subjects does not prepare students for the future world or help their thinking processes in the same way as a broader based curriculum. Those that succeed will do so ‘in spite of’ this constricted curriculum, rather than ‘because of it’. Schools need to focus more on stimulating different thought processes; preparing them for what used to be referred to as lateral thinking skills and that, again, is where we return to the concept of handedness.
The greatest scientist of the 20th century Albert Einstein (1879-1955) loved and appreciated the Arts. We would do well to consider his words.
"After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well."
"When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking."
So meanwhile, before your school begins alternate hand training (sometime in the future?), suggest to your children that they try, just occasionally, to brush their teeth with the 'wrong' hand – the hand that comes less naturally to them, just as a challenge. If you believe what is written above, then by stimulating their left/right brained connectivity, you’ll be helping open their pathway to creativity. If not, then you will certainly be helping them think about how less-abled people cope with the world. And that's a double lesson in thinking.
Mixed handedness research paper: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3560368/
On myths: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-myths/201303/three-myths-and-three-facts-about-left-handers
Why girls underperform at science:
Mixed handedness as we age: http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.be/2007/01/we-become-more-ambidextrous-as-we-get.html
On brain differences: http://www.webmd.com/brain/features/how-male-female-brains-differ#1
For something more provocative - 'Magical ideation, creativity & handedness': https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21722656
Squeezing out arts for more ‘useful’ subjects will impoverish us all: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/25/squeezing-out-arts-for-commercially-useful-subjects-will-make-our-culture-poorer