Monday, January 21, 2008

Sinister. Dexter. Come out fighting.

I attended a creative thinking course the other day that wasn't. Creative, that is. The trainer was absolutely the least creative person I've ever met in my life and was obviously running from a script that they didn't understand or subscribe to. Imagine turning up at a plumbing course run by a person whose first words are ‘Right. I think I’m here to tell you all about plums ...’ That's what it was like.

We were given a series of exercises to complete but the trainer seemed to think that there was a particular way to complete each problem. Isn’t creativity all about finding new ways to solve problems? Isn't it about encouraging free thinking and radicalism? Einstein once said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So, applying creative thinking to a problem is all about ignoring the obvious and the tried and going for the new, the untried and the occasionally wacky. But no, she had her own fixed ideas about how the puzzles were solved.

As she wrote clumsily upon a flip-chart I noted that she was left-handed. So why is that relevant? It's relevant because she later did a whole spiel about the old ‘left brain/ right brain’ business, pointing to the fact that a lot of the world’s most creative people are left-handed, quoting Paul McCartney, James Cameron, Michael Jackson and others.


This is an interesting subject. I consider myself to be pretty creative. As you know, I’m engaged in all kinds of creative and artistic projects. I’m predominently right-handed although I'm pretty good with my left hand; my mum is (and my grandfather was) ambidextrous so it may be in the genes. My best friend Huw is an award-winning creative who designs commercials and advertising campaigns. Right-handed. In fact, almost everyone I know who's creative is right-handed. And yet, the story persists that Leftys are more creative than Rightys. So how true is this?

Left-handedness – or sinistrality if you like – appears in approximately 8–15% of the adult population and is more common in men. The term ‘sinistral’ comes from sinister, the Latin word for ‘left’. This word in turn derives from sinus, the Latin word for ‘pocket’. Apparently, the Roman toga had a single pocket on the left side, for the convenience of the right-handed wearer. The Latin for ‘right’ is dexter, from which we get words like dexterity. Do you sense a theme here? Sinister - bad, Dexter - good. Always on the lookout for the odd and the non-conformist, the Church once actively persecuted the sinister Leftys. Left-handedness was seen as an indication of witchcraft or Satanic influence. It probably didn’t help that left-handedness, in comparison to the general population, also appears to occur more frequently in people with epilepsy, Down's Syndrome, autism and paedophiles [1].

Parents would force their children to become right-handed in order to make them conform. Even up until the early 20th century, schools would insist on left-handed children writing with their right hand (it happened to my own mother). And this isn’t solely a Western issue. The Inuit believed that left-handed people were sorcerers. Until relatively recently, a Japanese man could divorce his wife if she was left-handed. And in China, left-handed children were taught to be right-handed so that they could write Chinese characters using the prescribed method. But is there any evidence to support the idea that Leftys are more creative? Apparently not, despite the fact that the urban myth is still promulgated by trainers of creative thinking courses.

Firstly, there is the issue that creativity is something difficult to both define & measure objectively. That would take a huge essay of its own to discuss in any depth.

Secondly, using a few selected examples of left-handed creatives such as Leonardo da Vinci, Bill Gates and Matt Groening does not negate the fact that other brilliantly creative people are right-handed. The vast majority of artists, musicians and other creative people are right-handed in line with population percentages. The trainer actually used James Cameron as an example because he’s left-handed. But Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick are, or were, right-handed. McCartney may be a Lefty, but Lennon was a Righty. There is no significantly higher percentage of Leftys among artists.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the idea that left-handedness stems from greater use of the right side of the brain. It is true that the areas of the brain that deal with creativity, visual images, sounds (non-lingual) etc. are mostly to be found in the right hemisphere ... and the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body (The left hemisphere is more concerned with logic, order, organisation, and language). So, goes the story, if your left hand sends signals to the right side of the brain and vice versa you must be more creative.

This is another logical fallacy, it seems. The truth is that no one side of our brain dominates the other. We use both sides equally. The two hemispheres are connected and constantly swap signals via a bridge called the corpus callosum. Scans have shown that while ‘being creative’, signals may go to the left hemisphere first but will then be passed to the right to help make sense of them. Pictures are pointless without understanding what they mean. Similarly, spoken words are first of all input to the left brain but will then be sent over to the right brain to aid processing because language isn’t purely about words; it’s about context and syntax and intonation and inflection. We are whole brain users. It is worth noting that a number of studies using brain scans have revealed that there are some differences between Righty and Lefty brains. A right-handed person's brain is usually very ordered with specific areas dedicated to specific tasks. This ‘order’ is not the same with left-handed people where responsibility for tasks can ‘move’ around within the brain. None of this, however, argues greater creativity in Leftys. Nor does it imply that either kind of structure has any advantages over the other.

I might also add a final argument. Our closest relatives, the primates, have no real language skills and no preferences for left or right-handedness [2]. They may favour a particular hand for certain tasks but are not fundamentally left or right handed as humans are (Oh, and the urban myth that all polar bears are left-handed is just that; an urban myth. There is no scientific support for this story whatsoever). Therefore, the arguments about creativity and language skills being tied to left or right brain function seem to be entirely human - and probably have more to do with history, culture and prejudice than biology.

I've said it before and I'll say it again ... if we put the same effort, time and money into working out and promoting what we all have in common instead of looking for the differences in people, we'd all be a lot happier. Being a Righty or a Lefty isn't some kind of competition; there's nothing productive to be gained by reinforcing stereotypes and creating divisions within society. A creative person is the sum of their environment and life experience, just as a sporty person or a literary person or a political person is. Call me an old hippy if you like but perhaps we should concentrate on the output of the creative person rather than what hand they use?

And perhaps we should employ creative people to teach creative thinking courses?

Just a thought.


[1] Cantor, J. M.; Klassen, P. E.; Dickey, R.; Christensen, B. K.; Kuban, M. E.; Blak, T.; Williams, N. S.; & Blanchard, R. (2005). Handedness in pedophilia and hebephilia, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34, 447–459.

[2] Elizabeth V. Lonsdorf and William D. Hopkins (2005) Wild chimpanzees show population-level handedness for tool use. The National Academy of Sciences of the USA

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Stevyen, just a couple of thoughts. How many detailed studies have been done in this field? If people around the world have frowned upon the use of the left hand and promoted the use of the right hand how many creative right handed lefties are out there? Also it is fact that left handed people are more prone to mental illness so why not creativity? Also if you look at right handedness as a spectrum in terms of brain function then who's to say that right handed people who are creative don't have there brains wired the same or similar to those that are left handed? As you can guess I am left handed but also bipolar and have been known to be creative on occasion, I think alot more research should be done before we can fully understand the effect of being sinister!