I’m right handed. This does not sound like a shocking revelation. An astounding 90 percent of the world is right-handed. But did you ever pay attention to what that means? If you are right-handed, you are literally doing almost everything with only your right hand. As a right-handed person, I of course write with my right hand. I hold my coffee cup in my right hand, carry my bag on my right shoulder, mouse with my right hand, eat with my right hand, brush my teeth with my right hand, sleep on my right side. I push doors open with my right hand, open the dishwasher with my right hand, grab the soap with my right hand, hold my phone with my right hand. I shake hands with my right hand, use a knife and scissors with my right hand, start my car and operate the stick with my right hand. You get the idea.
What the heck is my left hand doing during all of this time? Mostly hanging at my side, waiting for the moment it is called upon to play a supporting role. Occasionally, I might ask my left hand to hold a fork or steady a steak or a piece of chicken while the right hand cuts away. But things that I do exclusively with my left hand? Nada.
I bet you never thought how often you use your right hand and how infrequently you use your left hand (assuming you are in the 90%). I had not either until I recently strained my right shoulder. This was a painful event (in more ways than one), that is largely over, but for about a week, I was forced to use my left hand instead of my right for just about everything except writing (I tried that too, but it was largely a disaster). This got me curious about the possible benefits of using my left hand more – beyond the obvious of giving my poor right hand a break.
Cognitively, your right and left hand are controlled by opposite sides of your brain. Your left hand is controlled by the right side of your brain and your right hand by the left. It would seem to follow, then, that using your left hand more could stimulate the right side of your brain more – the hemisphere that is responsible for creativity and imagination. Trying to use your non-dominant hand is also a learning process which could increase brain plasticity – basically making your brain sharper, if you will.
As it turns out, there is no scientific evidence to support the theory that training your non-dominant hand to do more confers any cognitive benefits. According to Michael Corballis, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, it may even be harmful. Yikes!
But while training my left hand may not have made me any smarter in the end, it certainly made me more mindful. My right hand was so good at doing everything that I rarely thought about what I was actually doing. And because I rarely thought, I operated on autopilot most of the time. For example, when eating with my right hand, I unconsciously shovel food in my mouth without a thought. When I was forced to switch to my left hand, eating became a particularly mindful experience. I had to really focus on that piece of pineapple to get it on my fork and into my mouth successfully, and as a result, I ate more slowly.
Using my left hand also made me more resourceful. This was particularly true when trying to mouse with my left hand. If you’ve never moused with your left hand, try it now and see how incredibly awkward it feels. After a couple of days of this, I was searching up keystrokes to replace the mouse instead, which brought me back to the days before the mouse when the keyboard was all that you had. Learning to use the keyboard again actually made me more productive and gave both of my shoulders a break. At the same time, I was also surprised at how quickly I was able to learn to mouse with my left hand if I just persisted and got past the frustration. By the end of the week, I had mastered left-hand mousing, learned a whole set of new keyboard shortcuts, and retrained my brain out of the right side autopilot. The mindfulness of the experience also caused me to pay more attention to my posture, the position of my fingers on the keyboard and how my hand held the mouse.
I want to take a moment to give thanks to my right shoulder, which for all my life has been doing the heavy lifting so to speak, while the left arm has been free to dangle worry-free at my other side. But I also want to give a big shout-out to the left hand, which rose to the challenge and proved that it could be just as worthy.
Take the left-hand challenge (or the non-dominant hand challenge this week if you are already a south paw) and see how it changes your own perception.