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Reflections : Sleight Of Hand

By Anil Dharker

11th December 2020

Picture yourself sitting in the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre listening to the Symphony Orchestra of India. Better still, imagine being in one of the uncomfortable seats of Wiener Musikverein watching musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic seemingly jousting with each other on a small stage as the bow arms of the left-handed and righthanded strings clash.

This of course, does not happen because all the string players—violin, viola, cello and double-bass, hold the bow in their right hand whatever their dominant hand is: they have to, not just because it is more harmonious visually for the audience to see all the bows moving uniformly, but also because all string instruments are made for right-handers. (Incidentally, you can now order a left-handed violin from Amazon in which the instrument is a mirror image of the standard violin, both on the outside by repositioning the neck rest and reversing the strings, and the inside by moving the bass bar and sound post).

It is estimated that only 10 per cent of people are left-handed, but a disproportionate number of them are represented in the creative arts, particularly among professional musicians. You notice this also in sports, with cricket being a prime example. At one time, the New Zealand Test team seemed to consist mainly of left-handers. You notice this also at the French Open, which Raphael Nadal seems to own, while last year Ben Stokes singleand left-handedly won the cricket World Cup for England.

‘Handedness’ as it is called, is a fascinating field, made even more so because so little is still known about it. Why does Sachin Tendulkar bat and bowl with his right hand but write with his left? Why do Mark Taylor, Brian Lara, Clive Lloyd, David Gower, brilliant lefthanded batsmen all, write with their right? Why does Stokes bat left and bowl right? As do Suresh Raina, Sourav Ganguly, Richard Hadlee to name a few, while Michael Clarke, Vinoo Mankad, Ravi Shastri to name just three, do the opposite? And weirdly, why does Adam Gilchrist, probably the world’s best-ever wicketkeeper, batsman and a natural left-hander, play tennis right-handed, or Nadal, a natural right-hander, play left-handed? Final mystifying question: if only ten per cent of the population is left-handed, why are 20 per cent of top cricketers left-handed?

Paul Broca (1824-1880), a French surgeon and anatomist, first discovered that a region in the frontal lobe of the left hemisphere of the brain (now known as Broca’s area) is the speech production centre for humans. He also formulated that handedness indicated specialisation on the opposite side of the brain; so right-handers, because of the speech centre’s position on the left, have greater developed skills in language, while because of the right hemisphere’s association with intuition and creativity, these are the left-handers’ strong suits. Recent research shows that while both hemispheres function differently, they work together: it is just more efficient for the brain to divide major tasks between two parts, so that the work of verbalisation and the work of movement requiring motor skills are equally divided.

A disproportionately higher percentage of Nobel prize winners, writers and painters gave rise to the theory that left-handers are more intelligent than right-handers. Just look at the number of U.S. Presidents with dominant left hands: James Garfield, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama…it’s an impressive list for sure, but studies (those inconvenient things) show that this particular theory is no more than an unproven hypothesis and IQ scores have nothing to do with handedness.

Among musicians, the best-known left-handers are Rachmaninoff, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart, Paganini, Daniel Barenboim and Glenn Gould. Contrary to what you would expect, the composers among them did not favour either hand, while Johann Sebastian Bach, a righthander, gave equal work to the left hand. (A special case here: pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm during World War I, but did not want to stop playing, so he commissioned work just for the left hand; the most famous of these is Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Other compositions include Prokofiev’s Concerto for the Left Hand which has never been performed, and works by Hindemith and Benjamin Britten.)

As it happens, we do not have much choice in the matter: ultrasound examination has shown that handedness manifests itself in foetal development. In the tenth week of gestation, foetuses begin to move their dominant hand more than the other, while in the fifteenth week the majority start sucking their right thumb. So we are born as we are, but luckily for left-handers, the prejudice against them is now gone, so they are generally ‘left’ alone.

It has been suggested that one can keep Alzheimer’s at bay by learning to use your less dominant hand as you grow older. If that is the case, 90 per cent of us should practise using our left hand far more than we do. However, I have an inconvenient counter to this. If this theory is correct, in a world made for right-handers where lefthanders learn to be more ambidextrous, wouldn’t the incidence of Alzheimer’s be much less in left-handed people?