Clowns to the right of me, Jokers to the left...
June 18, 2009 11:31 AM   Subscribe

I cannot tell right from left. Is this normal?

So, ever since I can remember I have had trouble with the concept of Right and Left. I'm good at spatial recognition and general directions, but when it comes to Right-ness of Left-ness of things, I have had, upon occasion, to look at my hands and orient my thinking based on where Left of a certain place should lie.

For instance, a few moments ago I was putting on my earphones and it took me 2 seconds to realize where the earphone marked 'R' should go.

This is a minor quirk and doesn't impede my life in any way(except being an annoying RoboRally player). I was just curious if there is a name for this condition and whether other people experience it as well.

I'm right handed, if that matters. And I'm pretty sure I'm not dyslexic.

Funnily enough, googling for this, I found an article that talks about a discussion at MeFi. But I couldn't find it.
posted by prufrock to Grab Bag (66 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My wife experiences a similar difficulty (and also with directions). I don't think a majority of people have this issue, so by that definition I don't think this condition is "normal." But I also don't think it's some one-in-a-million kind of thing.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:34 AM on June 18, 2009

It's very common. I don't suffer from it but have known dozens of those who do. East and West are also arbitrary things that many, many people can never keep straight.
posted by rokusan at 11:34 AM on June 18, 2009

Ok this is what I did to get L v R. Spread your fingers out, look down at your first finger and thumb, the hand with the capitol L is your left one. Just look for the L.
posted by whoaali at 11:36 AM on June 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

I have amazing orientation in cities and spaces in general, but every now and then I have to remind myself which is right and which is left.
posted by jedrek at 11:36 AM on June 18, 2009

When I confessed my troubles in this area to a bunch of my friends recently (women, 30s, highly-educated and street smart) many of them said "Wait, it's not just me?"
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:38 AM on June 18, 2009

I have the same thing. While what whoaali is good for reminding yourself which one is right and which one is left (I tend to mime my writing action to figure out which hand is right) it doesn't help when you're giving directions on the fly. "Turn right... the other right!!" Don't know how common it is, but at least you're not alone.

Same as jedrek, I have a pretty good sense of orientation in cities and spaces. I rarely get lost even without a map. Maybe you don't think about "right" and "left" enough to form a knee-jerk response of which is which, given that it is basically an arbitrary assignation of names?
posted by Phire at 11:39 AM on June 18, 2009

I think this is rather common, at least in my experience. Maybe 1 in 5 of my acquaintances admits some difficulty in quickly identifying which direction is "right" and which one is "left".
posted by muddgirl at 11:40 AM on June 18, 2009

I can't tell my left from my right either. I have to do the "make an L with your hands" thing every damn time. It's not just you!
posted by capnsue at 11:40 AM on June 18, 2009

When I was a kid, someone told me, "Everyone has a mental problem." The example given was that some people, although they may be quite intelligent and capable, have to stop and think about which is right and which is left. I'm glad I heard this phrased in such an unusually blunt fashion early in life. It may have subtly affected my thinking -- specifically, accepting that no one's mind works perfectly all the time. So, yeah, I think it's normal. I don't know what percentage of people have this particular mental problem, but really, who cares? You'll be fine.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:40 AM on June 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I have this same problem. Sometimes, I even have to picture myself back in my first-grade classroom and remember which side the clock was on (right), and which side the window was on (left). When I think about it, which is rare, I mostly find it annoying and embarrassing.
posted by willpie at 11:41 AM on June 18, 2009

Me too. I have graduated from actually making an L with my left hand to imagining my hands, and visualizing which one would make an L. It's the only thing that works for me.

When I'm driving, I still don't have an instinctive sense of right and left, but I respond to directions pretty easily - left turns are the "big turns" across traffic, and right turns are the "little turns." That also works for giving people instructions while driving.

My spacial relations are okay, and my sense of direction is pretty good, so I don't worry about it at all.
posted by insectosaurus at 11:44 AM on June 18, 2009

As anecdote, I have the same, or at least similar, problem. The names/orientation have never been quite natural to me.
posted by General Malaise at 11:45 AM on June 18, 2009

"Right is the hand you write with." I will never forget my kindergarten teacher telling me that. I knew that right and left were subjective (not that I knew that word, but I understood that there was "my right" and "your right"), so I just chalked it up to One of Those Things. When you're little, the world is filled with many instances of One Of Those Things, and sometimes you get used to accepting things you should not.

I didn't entirely get over that little mnemonic until I was seven.
posted by adipocere at 11:49 AM on June 18, 2009

My friend can't tell left from right to save his life. It drives me crazy when he's giving me directions, but it's one of those things you just can't make yourself feel intuitively if you don't already. FWIW, he has an insanely good sense of direction, like he has a GPS in his brain. He's the only person I know like this, but I'm sure it's not that rare, judging from the comments here, at least.
posted by ishotjr at 11:51 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

As another data point, I have an uncanny sense of direction. I can orient myself in a strange city immediately, but I cannot articulate left and right. Years ago my daughter was in a bike accident. In the ER, the doc was giving her a neuro exam and when my daughter had some difficulty with left and right the doc told her to hold up her hands to make an "L."
My daughter and I both held up our hands with the palms facing us.
I think it's genetic.
posted by Floydd at 11:53 AM on June 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

I almost always have to look at my hands or mime writing with each to remember which is right and which is left (right-handed, too). What's especially embarrassing is that, when I look at my hands to see which thumb and index finger make an L, it takes me a couple seconds to determine which L is facing the correct way (and my first name begins with L).
posted by quatsch at 11:54 AM on June 18, 2009

I had this problem until I got a piercing on one side of my body. Now I always remember which direction is which.

I admit this is a rather extreme thing to do to remember left from right. It wasn't the purpose behind the piercing, but a useful side-effect of it that I discovered after the fact.
posted by burntflowers at 11:56 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Same here. I check for my wedding band to determine left from right. Also directionally-challenged.
posted by sarajane at 11:58 AM on June 18, 2009

I had this problem too until I broke my left elbow. Now I don't have much of a problem, although it does take a minute to remember sometimes.
posted by downing street memo at 11:58 AM on June 18, 2009

Major left and right confusion here. When I was learning to drive, I associated right with up and left with down. The driving instructor would say turn left, I would push the directional down, then look at the dashboard to figure out which way I was supposed to be turning.

Surprisingly, I am ok with North/South/East/West.
posted by hworth at 11:59 AM on June 18, 2009

I have a birthmark on my left wrist. I don't do it anymore, but as a kid that was how I remembered.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:04 PM on June 18, 2009

This is not at all uncommon, and while I don't know about the degree you describe, I think any normal adult will have some delay in doing various sorts of R-L judgments. Here (pdf) is an early study demonstrating this effect across the board for normal adults. (I'm not up on the current state of research on this topic though.)
posted by advil at 12:06 PM on June 18, 2009

I'm the same way — always have to stop and think which is which. Not that this is some litmus test for normalcy.
posted by orange swan at 12:08 PM on June 18, 2009

It takes me about two seconds to make the connection, too. I usually remember by positioning my right hand as if I were about to write something, and then I remember. I had a very difficult time with right and left in kindergarten.

In addition to many above, I have a very good sense of direction. For some reason, my brain likes to keep track of the compass points at all times.
posted by bristolcat at 12:09 PM on June 18, 2009

I have to think out and point Never Eat Shredded Wheat to remember east/west. And I still use my fingers to multiply by nines.
posted by soft and hardcore taters at 12:13 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Right and left did not come easy to me, but after years of having to think about it, my right hand somehow feels . . . I don't know. "Heavier" isn't it, nor is "dominant," but it . . . just feels more important to me, somehow, so I don't have to doublethink it as much now. I am, however, fucking hopeless with N/S/E/W directionality. I think I must have moved to Seattle if only to be occasionally secure in the idea of where west lies. It's pathetic when I travel, and I am reduced to glancing pleadingly at my wife when I don't have the faintest idea where we are or where we're going, because maps just stymie me. I can look at maps, but my brain just sort of goes, "Well, fuck this," and turns it all into a jumble. It's ridiculous.
posted by Skot at 12:14 PM on June 18, 2009

I have no problem with right and left at all. However, I think I've always been aware that there are plenty of people who have trouble with it. I always just thought of it as one of those things that some people find difficult, nothing that weird about it, just a cute quirk.

Personally I can never seem to tell the difference between push and pull, but I understand that that's fairly typical.
posted by different at 12:15 PM on June 18, 2009

This is normal. It takes me a second or two, too! The same with east/west - I have to do a mental compass in my head every time I'm trying to conceptualize where east or west might be (don't really have the same problem with north/south). I chock it up to the fact that these directions are not in nature, but are humanly constructed.

Yet, I too have an excellent sense of direction. I can visualize where I am in relation to anything, and get from point A to point B very easily, but I might not be able to tell someone "take a right at blahblah, a left at soandso."
posted by raztaj at 12:17 PM on June 18, 2009

I can't tell my left from right and none of my siblings can either. Generally I do the Ls with my hands to see which is left (and my right hand makes a lowercase "d", for droit (which is right in french)).

And whenever I am driving I (and now my friends to accommodate me) don't say "turn left" or "turn right" but instead say "Your way" or "my way" (depending on where people are sitting). I have a pretty horrible sense of direction, too.
posted by gwenlister at 12:17 PM on June 18, 2009

The finacee just can't get it either. She used to look and see where her ring was (I broke that when I proposed). When we drive I tell her to turn toward her or toward me. I've toyed with the idea of reprogramming her GPS so that it says that instead of left and right.

She blames it on dyslexia. Not sure if that's right or not but it at least gives you somewhere to start looking.
posted by theichibun at 12:17 PM on June 18, 2009

It's very common. I don't suffer from it but have known dozens of those who do. East and West are also arbitrary things that many, many people can never keep straight.

I don't have left vs. right problems, but I do have trouble with east and west. When I was learning east vs. west as a youngster, this was usually done on a map of the United States, and somehow I got it into my subconscious that East=towards the Atlantic Ocean, West=towards the Pacific Ocean. Which means I was confusing Western Europe and Eastern Europe for many years.

I no longer have a problem with Western vs. Eastern Europe, but not so much because I've worked it out geographically, but because I've made the cultural associations that come to mind when we talk about "Western Europe" and "Eastern Europe" and I know which countries tend to go with those associations. But if you talk about Western Africa or Eastern Africa, I'm still going to have to think pretty hard for a few seconds to be sure which part you're talking about. Or if you put me in a room with no windows (so there's no sun/time-of-day cues) and tell me, "you're facing south; which way is east?" It'll take some thought on my part to figure out that east my left...I think.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:29 PM on June 18, 2009

"I have amazing orientation in cities and spaces in general, but every now and then I have to remind myself which is right and which is left."

This could easily be something I wrote. I, too, have a very sharp and accurate sense of orientation* but have difficulty in immediately identifying left and right. I am also rather ambidextrous and can easily read and write backwards, upside down and with either hand. So too, could my mother. Do you suppose that this lack of handedness is a part of left/right confusion?

*Except in certain cities which confuse my sense of direction. Most dramatic is Spokane, WA where I get all screwed up and where South feels like West to me.
posted by bz at 12:35 PM on June 18, 2009

I have instructed my wife that when I point left and say "right" while navigating, the pointing finger wins. I blame the nuns.
posted by holgate at 12:35 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm right handed (nominally), but left-eared (the right one doesn't work). So most of my ifo comes in on the left side. I get right and left absolutely confused. I even pick up pencils, sometimes, in my left hand and make motions like I'm gonna write until I notice that makes no sense.

I do the "make an ell with your index and thumb" thing and see what looks right.
posted by notsnot at 12:54 PM on June 18, 2009

Left and right give my wife fits. "Your other [right/left]!" is a common phrase for me to say to her. For me, it's not so much right and left as it is east and west. Even when I stop to think about it, I still find myself getting east and west confused when giving directions, or when traveling without them.
posted by owtytrof at 1:09 PM on June 18, 2009

I tell them apart by feeling anchored on the right, because I'm very right-handed (as in, the only things I can do with the left are typing, swimming and knitting, really). If I pause for a split-second, that's enough to remind me and I can go on from instinct. Like others above, my orientation is usually damn good, though.

holgate: I have instructed my wife that when I point left and say "right" while navigating, the pointing finger wins.

Awesome. I'm going to have to borrow this move.
posted by carbide at 1:14 PM on June 18, 2009

Me: "Nurse, I have a sore toe."
Nurse: "Right of left foot?"
Me: "Umm, Passenger side."

(US based).
posted by Fortnight Bender at 1:21 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I usually have no problem with left/right - until I have a glass of wine. My L/R-fu seems to be the first thing to go with any kind of mental inhibitor. It also disappears if I'm feeling faint or dizzy - the other day my chiropractor worked out some tension in my neck and shoulders which made me feel woozy, then asked me to lie down on my right side. I had no idea which way to go.

Also, can I just say, Bonus Points for RoboRally.
posted by philotes at 1:26 PM on June 18, 2009

The friends that have this problem all seem to be dyslexic as well.

I'm actually glad I don't need to use the 'L' trick; mirrored letters read just as natural to me as normal ones. (This leads to embarassing problems with doors where you can read the 'Push' sticker through the glass)
posted by HFSH at 1:29 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have to think for a split second (usually I remember by which wrist would have a watch on it if I still carried a watch). I've asked a great number of people about this but have only ever run into two people who've claimed they could tell right from left always and without having to think about it at all.
posted by Kattullus at 1:32 PM on June 18, 2009

Me too. I stopped making the L with my left hand once I broke everything on that side - the the side that hurts is left. I still do "Never Eat Shredded Wheat" for compass directions.

FWIW this is typical of those of us with dyscalculia. (I excel at geometry but struggle to dial a ten-digit phone number without help.)
posted by DarlingBri at 1:33 PM on June 18, 2009

I also cannot tell my right from my left, it is associated with my Dyslexia. Or so I've been told.

I have to look at my wedding band on my ring finger to determine my left from my right.
posted by roxiesmom at 1:45 PM on June 18, 2009

I've always wondered if this is a language thing. I sometimes mix up left and right, but when I lived overseas, I *NEVER* mixed up izquierda and durecha. I think the problem is that we use the "rite" sound for so many things.

Right (as in correct)
Right (as in a direction)

...just my personal theory.
posted by 2oh1 at 2:02 PM on June 18, 2009

Here is the previous discussion mentioned in the article. And people in that thread linked to yet another, here.
posted by groar at 2:02 PM on June 18, 2009

I struggle with left and right, and had exactly the same experience as hworth when learning to drive (never actually got my licence...) - I had to learn which up/down direction corresponded to the words left and right and then look at the blinking light on the dashboard to see which way to point the car.

My sense of direction is that bad, I think, and I have no problems at all with East/West. I used to think that I found port/starboard easier than left/right but I'm not sure any more. I have got better over time with left & right but it still is something I have to think about.

I thought when I was younger that others had this same knottiness & confusion around the names of the directions. In my twenties it dawned on me that others could tell left from right with about the facility that I can tell up from down.
posted by calico at 2:04 PM on June 18, 2009

I have this problem as well. I am right-handed but left-eyed, which I suspect may have something to do with it- to me, left 'looks' like it should be the dominant direction, so I'm always calling left right.

However, I have the incredible convenience of having the initials LR, so I just have to imagine my name floating in front of me to remember which side is which.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:06 PM on June 18, 2009

I learned the L thing when I was in marching band and constantly turning the wrong way in formation. I'm better with left and right than I used to be, but similar to philotes, if I'm tired it just kinda slips. (left-handed, not dyslexic.) Additionally, I'm terrible at making left turns -- more so on my bike than in the car. Like Zoolander, I'm not an ambi-turner.
posted by epersonae at 2:08 PM on June 18, 2009

I expect to die--or at least be seriously injured--someday when someone yells ON YOUR LEFT or DUCK RIGHT at me to warn me of a flying projectile about to skewer me through the eye, and I pause a moment too long to parse the instruction. East and West have never given me trouble, but for years I had to surreptitiously squeeze my writing hand into a fist to be sure which side was my right. I've gotten quick enough at mentally orienting myself that the delay is barely noticeable to most people, a fraction of a second. But when I'm tired or lazy, or my attention wanders, and I'm giving someone directions, then I start in with the 'Take your next right. Sorry. Left. Wait. Yeah, left. There. Dammit!'

Driving, incidentally--knowing the difference between a right turn and a left turn when I am the one driving--doesn't faze me, which I expect is because the rules for left and right are distinctly different for each, thereby functionally de-symmetrizing (that is a ridiculous word and I apologize) them. No symmetry, no confusion. (And for all you 'make an L' bullshitters, THEY ARE BOTH ELLS.)
posted by collectallfour at 2:19 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not dyslexic, but utterly no sense of direction, and I invariably look at my hands to tell left from right (I've got a scar on my right hand, so that's how I tell). I also can't tell you which room is above/below me, even in the house we own. All of these things my husband can do, and he doesn't understand how I can't, and I don't understand how he can!
posted by leahwrenn at 2:28 PM on June 18, 2009

Data Point: I do not have this problem. To confound matters, my initials are "RL"!

On the other hand (no pun intended), I cannot tell the difference between Democrat and Republican.
(No, I am not kidding, I need to be constantly reminded the President's affiliation, I don't know which is which, the donkey and elephant, or which is the GOP.)
posted by Drasher at 2:32 PM on June 18, 2009

Left/right are not a problem for me, but east/west confusion has led me to take many erroneous exits off the freeway. No problems with North/South though.
posted by medeine at 2:49 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I, too, look at my hands for the L. People never fail to comment on it. Glad to read that I'm not so terribly alone in this.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 3:13 PM on June 18, 2009

I have to look down, think, "I write with that hand," and then look up again. This amuses people.

Sometimes, if I'm super slick, I just clench my fingers on that hand, and it's like, BAM, that's the right!
posted by Nattie at 3:53 PM on June 18, 2009

I have the same thing with compass direction. I can't just remember east=right and west=left, I have to do a little N-E-S-W dance to figure out which one is which.
posted by Billegible at 3:59 PM on June 18, 2009

Every person I've met with that issue has dyslexia to some varying degree.
posted by imaswinger at 4:03 PM on June 18, 2009

I always screwded up those kiddie singing games where you put your right hand on your head, your left hand on your shoulder, hop on your left foot, etc. (I don't remember just how it goes), in part because I wasn't sure whose right/left was being invoked: subjective (as perceived by myself) or proper.

I also unconsciously tended to think that north was whatever direction in which I was headed. More familiarity with maps these days (due to Google Maps) has resolved this.
posted by bad grammar at 4:36 PM on June 18, 2009

I know Left vs Right instantly (like, you wouldn't see a German Shepherd on a leash and struggle with whether it was "cat" or "dog", right?)

But I always have to do the Never-Eat-Soggy-Waffles thing for East/West. North/South is like Left/Right for me.
posted by losvedir at 4:46 PM on June 18, 2009

Me too with the l&r, also terrible sense of direction, what ever way I think is correct,it's almost always the oposite.
Had trouble as a kid learning to write s,and some letters the correct way and learning to tell time with a clock, though I really feel that no one picked up my learning style. I'm plenty intelligent and able to learn things. Just an odd thing...
posted by starfish at 8:02 PM on June 18, 2009

Hayfoot, Strawfoot!
posted by dhartung at 8:30 PM on June 18, 2009

I've had the same problem too, all my life. My drivers ed teacher got really frustrated with me, and I still have a really hard time giving directions orally (the words left and right are just so arbitrary!). I have a birth mark on my left hand, and that's how I always reminded myself (didn't learn the left hand makes an "L" trick until I was an adult).

I'm so interested so many other mefites are like this too!
posted by Tesseractive at 8:38 PM on June 18, 2009

Who can say what's normal, but I have never been good with left/right. I usually have to stop and hold up my dominant hand (right) to know which is which. My mom just commented about my still not knowing which is which after 28 years.. And actually, by the looks of MeFi responses, it's more common than we've all thought!
posted by Mael Oui at 9:16 PM on June 18, 2009

Knowing left/right always takes me a moment and I'm absolutely hopeless when it comes to east/west. Earlier this week I had to take the bus to a job interview. From the station it was two connecting bus trips in an L-shape: eastbound then northbound. Coming home from the interview, I skipped the southbound trip and simply took the westbound bus home. But figuring which side of the street I needed to catch the bus on took forever because now my orientation was "upside-down" since I was walking southbound. Even trying shredded-wheats-never-eat didn't help and I eventually had to draw a little map and then turn it upside-down.
posted by Rora at 9:37 PM on June 18, 2009

I have difficulties.

When I give directions, I either have to draw out the map or visualize it and do a mini walk-through while I'm explaining it. This actually involves me standing up and rotating so I'm facing the direction I need to be walking and then making all the turns right there on the spot.

Recently my friend was trying to get me to look at somebody walking by, by telling me to look to my right. And I consistently looked left. And every time she repeated "No, emmling, RIGHT. LOOK RIGHT!" I turned more left.

I'm not sure it's a sound thing - I was meeting my Japanese friend once and she mailed me (in Japanese) directions to find her and the rest of our group.... I looked at the directions, saw 右, read it correctly as migi, thought "so I go to the right...." and promptly turned to the left and got lost.

But when I'm not having to think about/follow directions, I don't get lost. Not quite sure how this works.
posted by emmling at 9:18 AM on June 19, 2009

Ah, so many fellow have-to-think-about souls; consoling! But everyone's apparently so cheerful about it…? Good for you!

Actually, I'd say I've finally gotten this down—it's basically instant by now (I'm over 60)—so perhaps there's hope for others, too? But it may be that a truly traumatic experience is required to create the motivation to really LEARN this.

I'm 16, painfully self-conscious, got my brand new license.
I've been granted the family station wagon to haul a bunch of friends, including some daunting older guys and others I don't really know, to a concert in the city. The car's packed.
At one point they're giving me directions, I'm turning, they're all yelling "Go left… Left!! LEFT!!!" I finally shout back "I AM!!"

But of course, I'm not…

I'll take the memory of this horrible moment to my grave.
posted by dpcoffin at 9:51 AM on June 19, 2009

East and West may be arbitrary - but they are FIXED. I cannot tell right from left because things change when I move. If I turned around at this moment, everything that is now on my left side, would suddenly be on my right. Madness! Any way I face, all the stuff that is currently on the "left" side of the room would be on the east side. And what if I am in a yogo pose so that my body faces one way and my eyes face another? Insanity!

losvedir - A German Shepherd doesn't suddenly become a pug. It's not a pug for some people and a German Shepherd for someone else. It's always a German Shepherd. A German Shepherd on a stage is a German Shepherd, not a stage-German Shepherd. (And if I saw any dog stuggling on a leash I'd be concerned about its training.)

Left and Right are for people who can't learn the compass points.

Which is mostly everyone, I think. There are many, many people in my office who cannot, while in the building, point correctly to the direction of the front entrance of the building. In our building, and many others, you'll notice that there is some kind of detail on one side of the elevator lobby so that people can give directions like "go through the door next to the plant" because the average adult America has such a poor sense of direction that they cannot be trusted to "use the west door."

This thread is the first time I've heard of people who cannot do left-right and also don't know directions.

Port and Starboard are okay, because they are always in relation to the front of the boat.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:49 PM on June 20, 2009

I'm only allowed to point right and left when I'm telling my boyfriend where to go when he's driving because 9 times out of 10 I'll point left and say right when I mean left or point right and say left when I mean right. I have an exceptional sense of direction. I never get lost. My question to my boyfriend is always, "Why do you need me to tell you how to get there for the hundredth time anyway." At least I always know where I'm going.
posted by wherever, whatever at 9:44 PM on June 20, 2009

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