To the left – to the leee…right

In our day, we are constantly asked to tell left from right. Why it is so common for people to confuse the two?

This post is also available in Dutch.

From very early we learn how to discriminate between left and right. In most cases, we are taught to look at the hand we use to draw or write. If we usually hold a pencil with our right hand, then we learn that the other hand must be the left, and vice versa.  This knowledge becomes so fundamental to all our daily activities that we use it without even realizing it. For example, we distinguish left from right when we want to give directions or, even more simply, when we put our shoes on in the morning.

Learning how to discriminate between left and right is a very basic ability. But more people than you may expect are not so good at it.

Personally, I am terrible at distinguishing left from right. Reaching a new destination is always an adventure. Despite the good intentions and the friendliest navigator voices, I often end up turning right when I am expected to turn left. Better not to talk about my driving experiences….
Good for me, it seems I am not the only one. A recent survey showed that about a third of people are not so good at differentiating left and right.

What makes it so difficult to tell left from right?

It is not so clear why left and right discrimination may be faulty. There are situations in which making this distinction is particularly harder. One example is when we have to mirror the movement of another person facing us. How often did you end up moving your right leg when the yoga teacher in front of you was showing to move his left leg? Time restriction also impacts our ability to choose left or right. For example, it is more likely to take the wrong turn when you have to decide promptly to go left or right as compared to when you are given plenty of time.

What do you need to make good “left or right” decisions?

From a cognitive point of view, differentiating left and right is a very complex process. It requires the ability to integrate visual cues and auditory stimuli but also to be aware of our body parts (or any random object) and their position in space. These skills are so-called high cognitive functions, and, supported by activity across our brain.

 The brain controls the cognitive skills that help us to choose left from right.

There is, in particular, one brain area – the so-called angular gyrus – that seems to do most of the job. This area is in the parietal lobe, that is involved in our perception of space as well as in the perception of our body in this space. The angular gyrus is also involved in language, memory and even calculations. Deficits in this brain area are associated with a rare condition – called Gerstmann Syndrome – in which impaired left/right discrimination comes together with inability to write and do math.  

Is there a way to train our ability to tell left from right?  

Fortunately, there are different ways to train our left/right decisions. One way can be to try and mentally rotate objects in space. Or even better, experiment with sports that require a high level of coordination – like tennis or dancing. These types of activities indeed stimulate the cognitive functions at the basis of left/right discriminations. And an added point: they can be quite fun.

Author: Martina Arenella
Buddy: Christina Isakoglou
Editor: Ellen Lommerse
Translation: Jill Naaijen
Editor translation: Roeland Segeren

Photo credit to geralt via Pixabay

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