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Krulwich Wonders: No, Not that Left, Your OTHER Left!

Thursday, October 20, 2011 - 10:13 AM

Winnie the Pooh and Sigmund Freud Winnie the Pooh and Sigmund Freud (Disney Enterprises, Inc.; Wikimedia Commons/NPR)

A post from Robert's excellent Krulwich Wonders blog.

Sigmund Freud, who was no shirker in the brain department, had trouble remembering left from right. When he was a boy, if someone suddenly shouted, "Sigmund! Go to your right!" he'd freeze.

"No organic feeling told me," he once wrote. "I used to test this by quickly making a few writing movements with my right hand." It's the old Write-With-My-Right trick. And he's not the only one.

At the other end of the IQ curve, Winnie the Pooh, that bear of Little Brain, had the same problem.

Pooh looked at his two paws. He knew one of them was the right, and he knew that when you had decided which one of them was the right, then the other one was the left. But he never could remember how to begin.

Lots of people have left/right issues. Even if you don't think you have, you do. Here's a little test from science writer Chris McManus. Take a look at these pointing hands and, as fast as you can, say out loud whether each hand is pointing up or down.

Hands up and down

Robert Krulwich/NPR

OK. Now, take a look at this next set, and again as fast as you can and out loud, say whether each hand is pointing right or pointing left.

Hands side to side

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Chris McManus says most people have a significantly harder (and slower) time doing the left/right test. And if the question is, "Which hand is a right hand or a left hand?" things get glacial. People take two and a half times longer to identify right hands from left hands. Naming, even noticing, right from left is just not easy.


The Most Recent Case In Point?

Marco Bertamini and Carol Bode of the University of Liverpool (working with Nicola Bruno in Parma) put two famous films Yojimbo and Sanjuro by the great Japanese director Kurosawa in a movie theater in Liverpool. Anybody could come. The films were free. All you had to do was fill out a questionnaire at the end.

Lots of Kurosawa fans showed up. They sat. They watched. What they didn't know, was at half the screenings, the film was flipped. Left became right. Right became left.

The psychologists say in their paper:

In the opening scene of Yojimbo (1961), a samurai arrives at a fork in the road and throws a stick in the air. The stick points to the right, and the samurai follows the road to a village. Here the story begins. We will never know where he would have arrived if the stick had sent him to the left.

Except, in half the screenings, the stick actually went left!

Production still from the 1961 film "Yojimbo." The original image is on the left.

Toho Company Ltd./Photofest

Production still from the 1961 film "Yojimbo." The original image is on the left.

"We chose Kurosawa," said Bertamini and Bode, "not only because he is highly admired as a director but also because in these films there are no cars and no Roman alphabet writing." Most Liverpudlians don't read Japanese and wouldn't notice that the writing was backwards. But would they notice the more subtle changes?

A kimono, for example, is always worn with the left side overlapping the right side (the reverse is used to dress a corpse for burial). Light that used to come from one side is now coming from the other. Any right-handed actor becomes left-handed and vice-versa. Finally, many emotions are expressed by actors during a film, and facial expressions are also known to be asymmetrical...

As it turned out, of everybody who saw the films in reverse, only two people noticed. One could read Japanese and noticed the letter/character reversals. The other was a friend of the Toshiro Mifune's (the star of the film) family and came to the film with a container of Mifune's ashes. They were both removed from the survey.

That left...everybody else. Even though all the actors in the film were strangely left handed, even though many of the movie goers had seen these films before, they didn't see a difference.

"The almost total lack of detection of the reversal is remarkable," say the authors.

I dunno. I'm not as surprised. Maybe because I don't find it all that interesting whether something is naturally right or left oriented. I've been handling one dollar bills all my life. If you showed me two faces of George Washington, one facing left, the other right, would I know which one actually appears on a one dollar bill?

I wouldn't.

Would you?

Which way did George face on his bill?

What's more surprising, is even when the difference matters, people can't be bothered.

For years Dr. Tom Schneider has kept a record at his website of DNA molecule illustrations where the twist of the double helix is flipped from the correct direction (twisting right) to very incorrect "left handed DNA." Even I can tell the difference, but the incorrectly flipped DNA keeps showing up in science and medical journals.

But the dark secret here is I kind of like it when I see someone else getting it wrong. It's good to know, for example, that the great physicist Richard Feynman had to use a mole on the back of his left hand to remember his true left. It's even better to look at this famous portrait of the German writer Goethe and to notice (courtesy of Chris McManus) that Goethe's right leg seems to end in a left foot. If I'd grown up a portrait painter, I'd have done this all the time. But I didn't. So I get to say, shame on you, German artist Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. You did it. I didn't.

Goethe in the Roman Campagna, 1787

Wikimedia Commons

Chris McManus' book on left and right is called Right Hand, Left Hand (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2002); Thanks to Steve Silberman for pointing me to the Kurosawa paper.


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Comments [10]

Barbara Romero from California

I'm 65 years and I'm so happy to know left handers have problems with the go left or go right I've only one mention about the direction thing when I'm driving the granddaughters get tell me how to. drive I keep telling them POINT which way

Nov. 19 2013 06:55 PM

D-son NC writes: " In my family, for some reason, right and left was highly emphasized-for me it was actually easier to distinguish the left from right pointing hands, rather than the up/down pointing hands. I think this presents an interesting perspective on brain development.. It's surprising to me that I can tell my right from my left as I still can't remember my ABC's and can't spell worth anything."

Could it be, D-son, that some confusion on right & left runs in your family — and that _this_ is why your folks put so much emphasis on training their chilren about the difference?

Mar. 20 2012 11:54 AM
AndrewD from Perth, Australia

OMG, I've got something in common with Richard Feynman! In may case, a mole on my right thumb, to which I refer when directionally challenged. This has made my day!

Dec. 08 2011 02:47 AM
Kathy Voth from Loveland, CO

I've been right vs left handicapped my whole life. In my daily life, most people think I'm quite intelligent, so I've been able to hide my handicap for the most part. But one day I was working with a group of 6th graders showing them how to do trail maintenance using a hoe-like tool. For awhile we tried with our right hands, and then seeing that some of them were having a hard time, I asked them, "Are you right handed or left handed?" Their teacher scoffed at my question. In front of them she said, "These kids are "blah, blah, blah" (some label I can't recall but that identified them as mentally challenged in some way). So they don't know their right from their left," she said. "Well," I said, "Neither do I. So you can leave us alone while we figure out which way we do best with these tools." It pleased me to no end that those kids ended up doing a great job, and now I'm so tickled to hear that plenty of great people have our same problem.

Nov. 28 2011 12:13 AM

I had to send this to my boyfriend. When we are on road trips, he always drives because he is a better driver. I always navigate, because I am much better at reading maps. Last week we were in New York, in SoHo. I was attempting to direct us towards the FDR Drive (not an easy task!). When at the crucial moment I told him to make a right on Houston, he inexplicably made a left. As the car was moving through the intersection, I'm yelling, "Make a right! A RIGHT!"
He's saying, "I am, I AM."
This is not the first time this has happened. For some reason, under the pressure of traffic and travel, he makes the wrong turn, because his brain has him convinced it's the direction he wants...

Nov. 10 2011 09:01 PM
Peter from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

The pointing hands above are a pretty good trick, but a biased trick. In most languages we read from left to right,
(or even right to left), and because we're visually comparing one hand to the next then it's the order we choose that really makes the difference here.
Try going top to bottom (vertical rather than horizontal) and you'll have a far easier time with the second set of hands, and probably slow down on the first set.
It's funny to me that next you talk about a Japanese film. If I'm not mistaken, isn't it in Japan where they read vertical columns instead of horizontal rows?

Oct. 28 2011 03:26 AM
D-son NC

Saying that a binary system of left and right is inorganic not necessarily true,Handedness is one of the few biological characteristics of the human which distinguish us from most other animals. The way the brain develops is in direct response to the environment in which it is present. in cultures where the cardinal directions are emphasized, as John mentioned, people think of location and orientation in more concrete terms. In my family, for some reason, right and left was highly emphasized-for me it was actually easier to distinguish the left from right pointing hands, rather than the up/down pointing hands. I think this presents an interesting perspective on brain development.. It's surprising to me that I can tell my right from my left as I still can't remember my ABC's and can't spell worth anything.

Oct. 24 2011 11:07 AM
J Mac from Durham, NC

that's an interesting point syd, and there's an excellent radiolab about directionality called lost & found. there's a piece about a group of people in australia who don't orient themselves and others using left and right, but instead use compass directions.

Oct. 23 2011 09:03 PM

Speaking in evolutionary terms, it makes a lot of sense that we should be able to easily distinguish up from down but not left from right. The world we live in displays significant differences between up and down (we experience sunlight, a vital source of vitamins, only from above; we experience gravity, which severely limits our movement only from below. On the other hand, there is no law of nature or universal pattern that distinguishes left from right at the biological level.

We are also, as far as I know, the only species to give binary directions such as left-right, probably because we are the only species that has artificially created inorganic patterns of movement like highways, city blocks, hallways. An insect such as an ant that is provided with a binary choice of direction relies on chemical gradients to determine where it must go. Other animals communicate something more akin to compass degrees.

Oct. 22 2011 01:42 AM
Meghan from New York City

While this definitely leaves me feeling relieved that I'm not the only person over the age of six that has a hard time with right and left, it's interesting that this notion that no one notices the difference between the original or a mirror image of the original, kind of flies in the face of the Abraham Lincoln experiment in your Desperately Seeking Symmetry episode. Both the Lincoln flip, as well as the dollar bill flip above, caught my attention immediately, and both weirded me out. Although if I was asked out of context what was wrong with either, I probably wouldn't have been able to put my finger on it. Maybe there's some sort of primal subconscious instinct that is triggered when objects from our day to day environment change that wouldn't necessarily catch the less common flips?

Oct. 21 2011 11:39 AM

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