Handedness [han-did-nis] is a better (faster or more precise) performance or individual preference for use of a hand. It is not a discrete variable (right or left), but a continuous one that can be expressed at levels between strong left and strong right. While in an ordinary disclosure the terms left and right are used to define handedness, there are actually four types: left-handedness, right-handedness, mixed-handedness (favoring one hand for some tasks and the other hand for others), and ambidexterity (equally adept with both hands). Left-handedness is somewhat more common among men.

Global studies indicate that 10% of people are left-handed, 30% are mixed-handed, and the remainder are right-handed. Ambidexterity is exceptionally rare, although it can be learned. However, a truly ambidextrous person is able to do any task equally well with either hand, whereas those who learn it still tend to favor their originally dominant hand. Ambilevous or ambisinister people demonstrate awkwardness with both hands. Parkinson’s disease in particular is associated with a loss of dexterity.

Handedness is an example of lateralization, the preference for using one side of the body, others include footedness (e.g. ‘regular’ or ‘goofy’ in snowboarding), and eyedness (the tendency to prefer visual input from one eye to the other). Brain lateralization is the distribution of functions into right and left hemispheres. In most brains the left hemisphere is the center of language and controls the right side of the body. The right hemisphere is the focus of creativity and controls the left side of the body. One common theory, as to how handedness affects the hemispheres, is the brain hemisphere division of labor. Since speaking and handiwork require fine motor skills, its presumption is that it would be more efficient to have one brain hemisphere do both, rather than having it divided up. And, because the left side of the brain controls speaking in most people, right-handedness predominates. This theory also predicts that left-handed people have a reversed brain division of labor. However, it was later discovered that many nonverbal species display lateralization. For example, elephants often have preferences for whether they swing their trunks to the left or the right. Honeybees have right antennas that are more sensitive to smells. Parrots can be left- or right-footed, and some are ambidextrous. Chickens and minnows like to look for food with one eye and look out for predators with the other.

Handedness displays a complex inheritance pattern. For example, if both parents of a child are left-handed, there is a 26% chance of that child being left-handed. A large study of twins indicated that the heritability of handedness is roughly 24%. Genome-wide association studies suggest that genetic variance in handedness cannot be explained by a single genetic locus, concluding that handedness is polygenic with at least 40 loci. There are several theories of how handedness develops in individual humans. Occurrences during prenatal development may be important; researchers studied fetuses in utero and determined that handedness in the womb was a very accurate predictor of handedness after birth. A 2003 study endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control determine that males with in-utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol (a synthetic estrogen-based fertility drug) were more likely to be left-handed over the clinical control group. Experimental animal models showed the same pattern.

There is also evidence that the position of the fetus in the final trimester and a baby’s subsequent birth position can affect handedness. About two-thirds of fetuses present with their left occiput (back of the head) at birth. This partly explains why prematurity results in a decrease in right-handedness. Asymmetric prenatal positioning may create asymmetric stimulation of the vestibular system (associated with balance), which is involved in the development of handedness. In fact, every major disorder in which patients show reduced right-handedness is associated with either vestibular abnormalities or delay, and asymmetry of the vestibular cortex is strongly correlated with the direction of handedness. Another theory is that ultrasound may affect the brains of unborn children, causing higher rates of left-handedness in children whose mothers received ultrasounds during pregnancy. Research on this topic suggests there may exist a weak association between ultrasound screening (sonography used to check on the healthy development of the fetus and mother during pregnancy) and non-right-handedness.

A 2006 study, researchers from Lafayette College and Johns Hopkins University concluded that there was no scientifically significant correlation between handedness and earnings for the general population, but among college-educated people, left-handers earned 10 to 15% more than their right-handed counterparts. In his book ‘Right-Hand, Left-Hand,’ psychologist Chris McManus argues that the proportion of left-handers is increasing and left-handed people as a group have historically produced an above-average quota of high achievers. He says that left-handers’ brains are structured differently (in a way that increases their range of abilities by being less lateralized) and the genes that determine left-handedness also govern development of the language centers of the brain. Writing in ‘Scientific American,’ McManus states that, ‘Studies in the U.K., U.S. and Australia have revealed that left-handed people differ from right-handers by only one IQ point, which is not noteworthy … Left-handers’ brains are structured differently from right-handers’ in ways that can allow them to process language, spatial relations and emotions in more diverse and potentially creative ways. Also, a slightly larger number of left-handers than right-handers are especially gifted in music and math. A study of musicians in professional orchestras found a significantly greater proportion of talented left-handers, even among those who played instruments that seem designed for right-handers, such as violins. Similarly, studies of adolescents who took tests to assess mathematical giftedness found many more left-handers in the population.’

A study of whether developing handedness during infancy correlated with language abilities in toddlers assessed 38 infants and followed them through to 12 months and then again once they became toddlers from 18–24 months. When a child developed a consistent use of its right or left hand during infancy (such as using the right hand to put the pacifier back in, or grasping random objects with the left hand), it was more likely to have superior language skills as a toddler. Children that lateralized later than infancy (i.e., when they were toddlers) showed normal development of language and had typical language scores.

Interactive sports such as table tennis, badminton, cricket, and tennis have an overrepresentation of left-handedness, while non-interactive sports such as swimming show no overrepresentation. Smaller physical distance between participants increases the overrepresentation. In fencing, about half the participants are left-handed. The advantage to players in one-on-one sports, such as tennis, boxing, fencing or judo, is that, in a population containing perhaps 10% left-handers and 90% right-handers, the left-hander plays 90% of his or her games against right-handed opponents and is well-practiced at dealing with this asymmetry. Right-handers play 90% of their games against other right-handers. Thus, when confronted with left-handers, they are less practiced. When two left-handers compete against each other, they are both likely to be at the same level of practice as when right-handers play other right-handers. This explains why a disproportionately high number of left-handers are found in sports in which direct one-on-one action predominates.

Other, sports-specific factors may increase or decrease the advantage left-handers usually hold in one-on-one situations. For example, in baseball a right-handed pitcher’s curve ball will break away from a right-handed batter and towards a left-handed batter. Historical batting averages show that left-handed batters have a slight advantage over right-handed batters when facing right-handed pitchers. Because there are fewer left-handed pitchers than right-handed pitchers, left-handed batters have more opportunities to face right-handed pitchers than their right-handed counterparts have against left-handed pitchers. Sixteen of the top twenty career batting averages in Major League Baseball history have been posted by left-handed batters. Left-handed batters have a slightly shorter run from the batter’s box to first base than right-handers. This gives left-handers a slight advantage in beating throws to first base on infield ground balls.

Because a left-handed pitcher faces first base when he is in position to throw to the batter, whereas a right-handed pitcher has his back to first base, a left-handed pitcher has an advantage when attempting to pickoff baserunners at first base. Defensively in baseball, left-handedness is considered an advantage for first basemen because they are better suited to fielding balls hit in the gap between first and second base, and because they do not have to pivot their body around before throwing the ball to another infielder. For the same reason, the other infielder’s positions are seen as being advantageous to right-handed throwers. Historically, there have been few left-handed catchers because of the perceived disadvantage a left-handed catcher would have in making the throw to third base, especially with a right-handed hitter at the plate. A left-handed catcher would have a potentially more dangerous time tagging out a baserunner trying to score. With the ball in the glove on the right hand, a left-handed catcher would have to turn his body to the left to tag a runner. In doing so, he can lose the opportunity to brace himself for an impending collision. The lack of left-handed catchers might be due to traditions.

In sports in which one competitor’s performance does not affect another’s (except indirectly through subjectively perceived psychological pressure), a particular hand preference confers little or no advantage. Golf and miniature golf feature occasional situations when obstacles on one side of the ball but not the other interfere with the stance or swing of a right- or left-handed player but not the other’s. Even so, the ‘favoritism’ on any given course is probably minimal, especially at high levels of play: a layperson such as the owner of a small miniature golf business may, when placing obstacles, assess the results from only the perspective of his or her handedness, such that more courses would be made difficult for right-handers than for left-handers. However, a thoughtful designer—especially a professional in the field—is likely to ensure game balance by adding handedness-specific obstacles in equal numbers and in places of similar tactical importance.

There is a general tendency that the more violent a society is, the higher the proportion of left-handers. For hand to hand combat, evolution has driven the proportion of left-handers to higher than the world average which is about 10%. For example, the fraction of left-handers in the peaceful society Dioula in Burkina Faso, west Africa is about 3.4% and that in the violent society, the Eipo of Indonesia is 20-30%.

Although scientific papers published in 1989 and 1991 claimed that the life expectancy of left-handed people was nine years less than that of right-handed people, these findings were quickly discredited. The authors had examined the handedness and age of the recently deceased in California, and failed to allow for the fact that older people there were less likely than younger people to identify as left-handed.

Many tools and procedures are designed to facilitate use by right-handed people, often without even realizing difficulties placed on the left-handed. ‘For centuries, left-handers have suffered unfair discrimination in a world designed for right-handers.’ Moreover, as well as inconvenience, left-handed people have been considered unlucky or even malicious for their difference by the right-handed majority. In many European languages, including English, the word for the direction ‘right’ also means ‘correct’ or ‘proper.’ Throughout history, being left-handed was considered negative. The Latin adjective ‘sinister’ means ‘left’ as well as ‘unlucky,’ and this double meaning survives in European derivatives of Latin, including the English when referring to the viewer’s left of a coat of arms. There are many negative connotations associated with the phrase ‘left-handed’: clumsy, awkward, unlucky, insincere, sinister, malicious, and so on. A ‘left-handed compliment’ is considered one that is unflattering or dismissive in meaning. In French, gauche means both ‘left’ and ‘awkward’ or ‘clumsy,’ while ‘droit(e)’ (cognate to English direct and related to ‘adroit’) means both ‘right’ and ‘straight,’ as well as ‘law’ and the legal sense of ‘right.’ The name ‘Dexter’ derives from the Latin for ‘right,’ as does the word ‘dexterity’ meaning ‘manual skill.’ As these are all very old words, they would tend to support theories indicating that the predominance of right-handedness is an extremely old phenomenon. Black magic is sometimes referred to as the ‘left-hand path.’

Until very recently in Taiwan (and still in Mainland China), left-handed people were strongly encouraged to switch to being right-handed, or at least switch to writing with the right hand. Due to the importance of stroke order, developed for the comfortable use of right-handed people, it is considered more difficult to write legible Chinese characters with the left hand than it is to write Latin letters, though difficulty is subjective and depends on the writer. Because writing when moving one’s hand away from its side towards the other side of the body can cause smudging if the outward side of the hand is allowed to drag across the writing, writing in the Latin alphabet might possibly be less feasible with the left hand than the right under certain circumstances. Conversely, right-to-left alphabets, such as the Arabic and Hebrew, are generally considered easier to write with the left hand in general. Depending on the position and inclination of the writing paper, and the writing method, the left-handed writer can write as neatly and efficiently or as messily and slowly as right-handed writers. Usually the left-handed child needs to be taught how to write correctly with the left hand, since discovering a comfortable left-handed writing method on one’s own may not be straightforward.

‘International Left-Handers Day’ is held annually every August 13. It was founded by the Left-Handers Club in 1992, with the club itself having been founded in 1990. The day is ‘an annual event when left-handers everywhere can celebrate their sinistrality [meaning left-handedness] and increase public awareness of the advantages and disadvantages of being left-handed.’ According to the club, ‘in the U.K. alone there were over 20 regional events to mark the day in 2001- including left-v-right sports matches, a left-handed tea party, pubs using left-handed corkscrews where patrons drank and played pub games with the left hand only, and nationwide ‘Lefty Zones’ where left-handers creativity, adaptability and sporting prowess were celebrated, whilst right-handers were encouraged to try out everyday left-handed objects to see just how awkward it can feel using the wrong equipment!’

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