A Plausible History of Handedness

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My mother had wanted to use her left hand but was forced to use her right.  Even years after her school days an awkwardness was apparent in her cursive.  And she was still protesting against the interference with her natural preference.  Easy to agree that no child should be forced to change.  By the time I was born with that left-handed preference I was left alone to use the hand with which I was most comfortable.

Wondering recently what was behind the old belief that all children should be trained to be right-handed, I recalled two bits of trivia from history.  Suddenly I had one of those moments when the whole story clicked.

The first bit of history was this: during the many years when men used knives and swords and, then guns, it became necessary to know whether it was safe to walk up to another man.  To show that each meant no harm, men greeted each other with an outstretched right hand, ready to shake with the same hand that might have gone for the sword.  If they did not shake, they doffed a cap or pulled a lock of hair in greeting, again showing the right hand clearly.  Apparently most men did use the right hand to hold a weapon, though I expect if a swordsman was left-handed, he had to make his left hand visible as well.

Now here a second bit of history: I have read that in the days before toilet paper, people used their left hand to wipe and their right hand to eat or shake hands with a friend.  It was necessary to know you were not shaking with the unclean hand.  From this, right-handedness became the norm.  I can imagine parents teaching small children to wipe with the left and eat with the right.  You couldn’t have had part of the population doing the opposite—how would you ever know which hand to trust?  Add to that, as a friend of mine who joined me in this line of reasoning suggested, over time right-handedness must have built itself into the genes.

By the time my mother was forced to change her preference, folks may have forgotten that history.  I’m not sure, though, since the family used an outhouse built into the barn where a Sears catalog sat, um, handy for ripping out a page to use.

Meanwhile, a few scientists have made much of the relationship between the sides of the brain and preferred hand, noting that artists are often left-handed and that the left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain—the nerves cross at the neck.  The left brain is supposed to be better at order and mundane work, while the right side is supposed to be better at pattern and abstract thinking.  In hard times, of course, art and deep thought are a luxury, giving that much more reason to stress right-handedness.

These bits of information came to my awareness separately and many years ago.  Only recently did I put enough attention on them to fill in the whole picture and come up with this theory.

I grew up with modern sanitation and, probably not coincidentally, was allowed to write and eat with my left hand.  The awareness of why earlier folks were so adamant about right-handedness was lost.  Thankfully, by my time so was the opinion.

Author: Patricia Mitchell Lapidus

Anyone may walk down the road wondering who we are, how we are supposed to live, and what happens when we die. Some folks like traditional answers. Some folks don't want to spent their time thinking too much. I felt called upon to search these questions in depth and in some surprising new places. Each of my books is a story or group of stories about what I found during a wide-ranging journey. My home state of Maine was a hard place to leave. But I knew I had to go. And if I didn't make it back home to Maine except to visit, I did find home in the comfort and joy of discoveries that washed away the pain that had started me on my travels.

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