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Why Do Some People Struggle To Tell Left From Right?

Hands up if you have to make an "L" shape with your left hand to be 100% sure.

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Speaking to Outpatient Surgery magazine earlier this year, Professor John Clarke from Drexel University, Philadelphia, estimated that a fifth of people have the same issue, saying:

Twenty percent of the population has right and left confusion, meaning that they can't immediately tell their right from their left without having to think about it first. That means if I say, "Raise your right hand" to a group of people, 20% might raise their left or have to take a few moments to think about it.

In a study of 1,182 college students, 26% reported having difficulty telling the difference between left and right occasionally, frequently, or all of the time. In a study of 364 university faculty members, 19% reported the same thing.

Either way, it's somewhere around 1 in 5 – and that's a sizable number of people.

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  1. If you were asked to raise your right hand now, could you do it?

    Yes, immediately.
    Yes, but I have to think about which one it is first or use a trick to remember.
    I get right and left mixed up even when I think about it first.

Why Do Some People Struggle To Tell Left From Right?

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If you were asked to raise your right hand now, could you do it?
  1.  
    vote votes
    Yes, immediately.
  2.  
    vote votes
    Yes, but I have to think about which one it is first or use a trick to remember.
  3.  
    vote votes
    I get right and left mixed up even when I think about it first.

If you feel stupid for not being able to tell the difference, don't.

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Discriminating between left and right is actually quite a complex process in your brain. Writing in The Conversation, Gerard Gormley from Queen's University, Belfast, says it involves "several higher neurological functions such as the ability to integrate sensory and visual information, language function and memory".

In his book Right Hand, Left Hand (Orion, 2013), Chris McManus writes:

To decide if one object is above another, we need to know what is 'up' and what is 'down'. That is easy – hold something in the air and let go. The way it falls is 'down' because gravity means things go down and not up. [...] There is nothing obvious in space, such as gravity or the length of our arms, which tells us which way is right and which left. Right and left will, therefore, be harder to use.

Here's a test you can take to work out how much easier you find it to distinguish up and down from left and right.

Even if you think you don't have any issues telling left from right, you'll probably take longer to "read" a picture of left- and right-pointing hands than up- and down-pointing ones.

Typically people can look at the picture on the left and name the way each hand is pointing much quicker than they can the one on the right. Thirty per cent of people who have taken the test online took more than 12 seconds longer to read the left and right hands than the up and down ones.

Of course, there are things you can do to help you distinguish left from right.

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According to McManus, Richard Feyman used a mole on his left hand to help him remember, and Sigmund Freud used to make a few writing movements in the air with his right hand.

So next time you forget (or have to make an "L" shape to remember), know that you're in good company.

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