Sunday, October 01, 2006

Left to Right is not Right

This morning, a 7 years old Chinese girl was brought to my clinic because she is having trouble in school. She is an intelligent girl but have problems reading and writing. Her verbal skills are good and she does well in art and drama. The teachers were upset with her for writing her “E”, “D”, “3”, “6” and “9” mirror image. Initially they thought that she was being naughty. Sometimes she will write the correct way but when she is tired or stressed, she will revert to writing her mirror image writing.

Her parents brought her to see me because they wanted to know whether she has dyslexia. On questioning, the parents admitted that she was initially using her left hand but they forced her to write with her right hand. So she was left handed, even though now she writes with her right hand.

Never force your left handed child to write with his or her right hand! All children are born with either left or right brain dominance. A left-handed child will be right brain dominant and a right-handed child will be left brain dominant. Some children are ambidextrous. They are able to use both hands equally well but usually one hand is more dexterous. When a child was forced to use the hand that is opposite to his or her brain dominance, a state known as mixed brain dominance occurs. The brain becomes confused and tries to adapt. Another name for this is mixed-handedness or cross laterality. This is not necessarily a good thing.

This problem is common among left-handed kids. Right-handed children do not face any such problem. The reason being there is a bias against left-handedness. The world is designed for right-handed people. If you do not believe me, just look at the design of a scissor. A scissor is designed in such a way that the line that is being cut can be only seen by a right-handed person. Another is the cork-screw. In fact, almost all instruments are designed to be used by right-handed people even though about 10% of people are left-handed. Hence I was excited when I discovered a shop called “The Left Handed Shop” at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The shop catered exclusively for left-handed people.

Left-handed people have problem writing. We write a sentence from left to right on a page. Some left-handed people have problems with their elbows if their tablemates are right handed. In writing Mandarin, the problem is even more acute. Writing right to left causes them to smug their notebooks. Chinese (Mandarin) characters are written in strokes in a certain format. Imagine how confusing it is to look at the word character in a mirror image format. The mirror image may actually be another Chinese character!

Left-handedness was once associated with Satanic influence. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the righteous will sit on the right hand of God. The unrighteous will sit on the left. Thus it used to be the tradition in missionary schools that children are punished for writing with their left hands.

In the Roman army, a left-handed person will have his left arm bounded to his body and trained to use the gladius (Roman short sword) with his right. In the Roman warfare strategy, left-handed solders will most likely stab their comrades. Roman legionnaires do not take kindly to “friendly fire”.

Fortunately, most right brain dominant children who were forced to use their right hands to write are able to adapt. Their brain just formed a visual “mirror image” of what they see. It was postulated that left-handed person are more visual in their thinking. Unfortunately, some could not and will be labeled “dyslexic”. Hence left to right is not always right.


alwyn said...

Helful post, Alex. So "nurture" can be harmful to nature, huh?

Does this extend to other commonly held left vs right brain features? creativity vs. logic, etc.? i.e. does this mean we should be careful in 'forcing' a child is more 'right-brained' to do left-brain stuff?

Alex Tang said...

Hi alwyn,

Yes, unwholesome nurture can be harmful.

While I do not agree concerning this artificial association of left/right brain with creativity/logic, I do believe in helping the child to develop all of his or her faculties in a balanced fashion.