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Can Using Your “Other Hand” Strengthen Your Brain?

Let’s do an experiment: for the next half hour, try to do everything you’d usually do with your dominant hand with your non-dominant hand. Can you?

Unless you’re ambidextrous, chances are you can’t — or if you can, you feel clumsy, slow or awkward. But does the act of trying benefit your brain? Let’s find out.

How many people are right vs. left-handed?

  • Most humans are right-handed: 70-95%
  • A minority are left-handed: 5-30% and
  • An indefinite number are ambidextrous.
    (This is undefined because scientists disagree on how much a person must use each hand to be truly ambidextrous.)

How handed are you?

There are actually degrees of handedness, which are evaluated using a scale called the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory.

  • More than half of Americans are “strongly right-handed”
  • 3% are “strongly left-handed,” and
  • The rest fall in between.

Is being right or left handed good or bad?

No, despite the fact that historically there’s been a lot of negative talk around being left-handed. Until fairly recently, teachers forced left-handed children to write right-handed due to a theory that it was the “right” way to do it. Even in that example, the word “right” is associated with correctness.

Think about the origins of the words:

  • The Latin word for “right” is “dexter,” which evolved into the word “dexterous,” meaning skilled.
  • The Latin word for “left” is “sinistra,” which gave rise to words such as “sinister,” meaning harmful or evil. The word “left” itself comes from Old English and means “weak” or “foolish.”
  • Value is often associated with things that are “right,” such as being the “right-hand man.”
  • Saying someone is “out in left field” means they’ve totally missed the mark.  

Now that we know using one hand isn’t better than using the other, is there any benefit to challenging your brain to try?

The argument for no

Some experts say the practice doesn’t appear to improve brain function, and may even harm neural development. Since humans usually prefer a hand early in life, it’s simply natural to follow that tendency, and there’s no reason to challenge it.

Handedness is controlled by the opposite brain hemisphere, so if you’re left-handed, that comes from the right hemisphere of your brain:

  • The left brain takes care of language, judgment and intellect.
  • The right brain handles nonverbal activities such as creativity, perception and empathy.

The two sides are not interchangeable, and some scientists think forcing a switch from your natural handedness could invite problems.

The argument for yes

Training your non-dominant hand to get better at doing certain things can be beneficial — as long as you do it to complement your dominant hand’s function, not to replace it.

Challenging the brain to change may be beneficial for just that reason — it’s a challenge:

  1. One hemisphere of the brain is activated when we use our dominant hand, but both are activated when we use the other. If creativity is located in your non-dominant hemisphere, for example, using your non-dominant hand may stimulate those brain cells.
  2. Cooperation between hemispheres is good. Studies show musicians who use both hands increase the size of the part of their brain that connects the 2 hemispheres by 9%.
  3. Our dominant hand may also affect our life choices. Studies show people may favor things on their dominant sides and ignore others, whether that be foods on a menu or shops on one side of the street. Challenging those inclinations may open up your choices.

The bottom line: Try it but don’t force it. A cooperative brain is better than a competitive one.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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