How can I fix my left-right confusion?
February 13, 2010 6:42 PM   Subscribe

How can I fix my left-right confusion?

Ever since I was little, I've had trouble instinctively understanding left/right. For instance, if someone tells me to turn left, I'll likely turn right, unless I think for a second about something like which hand I write with before I respond. I have the same problem if I'm giving directions.

It's not a big deal, once I figure it out once, I'm usually fine for a little while, but it's annoying nonetheless. If someone suddenly tells me to "turn right quickly", I want to be able to make the turn.

I'd like to just fix this once and for all. How can I do that?
posted by dogcat to Grab Bag (39 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm 40 and I still have to think about it. I'm left-handed and so always use that as a reference. Still takes a beat, even if I need to turn quickly. Often in a situation like that I'll gesture to make sure I'm going to do the right (I mean correct) thing.
posted by Sublimity at 6:45 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wear a ring on your right hand, and then chant, over and over, "Ring right, ring right, ring right..."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:50 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Or, get married. "Ring left, ring left, ring left..."
posted by applemeat at 6:52 PM on February 13, 2010

I posted a similar question a while ago. Might be of some help.
posted by prufrock at 6:53 PM on February 13, 2010

I was confused about this for a long time....

The small tip that someone gave me that helped was to hold up your hand quickly (back of your hands): Extend your thumbs out so that they are parallel with the ground. Your left hand should make an "L", right hand will not.

Do that several times....Eventually I was able to figure out left and right, after a thousand more times of doing this.

posted by Wolfster at 6:53 PM on February 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

It may not be quick enough, but if you get in this habit it might help: when you hold out your left hand, palm away and thumb out, it forms an L.
posted by The Deej at 6:55 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a similar problem, and I always think "I read text from LEFT to RIGHT", which is faster than checking my hands for me. I can't just remember which is which, but this gives me a system for identify left and right that is as quick as I'm going to manage.

I've always found left and right confusing because there's nothing intuitive about it, it's just arbitrary designations whereas at least, say, cardinal directions have some basis on objectivity, so I think maybe your best bet is to try to find a really quick referent instead of just KNOWING, because there's not necessarily anything to make it stick in your brain. If you find something that works for you, something that makes a bit more sense to your mind (as does thinking about books for me), it might help you more than the nebulousness of keep track of left and right without context.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:00 PM on February 13, 2010

Did you ever learn that trick when you were a kid with your pointer fingers and your thumbs?

It's easier to show than to explain, but if you make your palms face away from you and tuck your other fingers down, you can make an L with your left hand, but you just make a random right angle with your right hand. So L = Left. It's still just a trick, but when I'm feeling muddy-headed, it's easier for me to quickly picture my hands like that than to remember which hand I write with, etc.

On preview: what other people said with fewer words.
posted by colfax at 7:00 PM on February 13, 2010

Just to clarify, I already have tricks I can do to figure out which direction is which. I don't need more. What I really want is to not need the tricks anymore.

Anyway, here's the trick I use, which is completely mental (no gestures), and only takes me a second or two: "This is the hand I write with, I write with my left hand, therefore this side is my left and that side is my right."

Once I do that, I'm fine for awhile (I don't have to repeat constantly). The problem is that I have to do that consciously, and it usually takes a mistake or a few extra seconds for me to realize I need to figure out left/right again.

Basically, I don't want to have to think about it anymore. I want to know left from right like I know up from down.
posted by dogcat at 7:02 PM on February 13, 2010

Your left hand should make an "L", right hand will not.

This is my method, I highly recommend it.

Bonus tip: To figure out which is your bread plate and glass at dinner, touch the tip of your pointer finger to the tip of your thumb (on each hand), and extend the remaining fingers. Your left hand will form "b," your right "d." Bread plate is on your L and drink is on your R.
posted by sallybrown at 7:04 PM on February 13, 2010 [6 favorites]

That trick you do? Do it all day, every day, during your every waking moment, whether you need to do it or not.

I am not a psychologist.
posted by box at 7:35 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hey, I'm right-handed, but left-eared (so I lead with the left side of my head). I mix up left and right all the time.

Here's an exercise that will improve things for a while, though: have a friend stand behind you (so you can't read subconscious clues) and randomly call out left or right. Raise the hand that was just called out. Try to react faster and faster.

Unfortunately this mindhack wears off pretty quick unless you keep it up and practice every week or two.
posted by notsnot at 7:41 PM on February 13, 2010

I wore a watch when I was a kid. Left arm is now left direction for me.
posted by Submiqent at 7:42 PM on February 13, 2010

I'm 42 and I often have to think about it. "Turn left," I'll say. "No, not that way--the other left!" I always know what direction I mean, but I often use the wrong word.

I'm left-handed, and my sense--unbuoyed by any actual data--is that lefties are more likely to suffer from this problem. Whether it's innate, or the consequence of being left-handed in a right-handed world, isn't clear.

Also, previously on Metafilter.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:43 PM on February 13, 2010

I find that I can point with my left or right hand far easier than I get the words right. So, if someone says step right, I can raise my right finger and then I know which foot to use. (Like you shortening the thought to just "writing hand" or "other hand") The pause is short enough it isn't a problem unless I am trying to follow a dance routine in which case I am hopeless unless I can just follow the person in front of me. (Still a fraction behind even then - I'm terrible in exercise classes.)

For me, the even bigger problem is when I know which direction I want but I have to make sure I am using the right word. So when I give directions, I have learned to always point with my hands as I describe which way to turn. If I am using the wrong word for the way my hands are pointing, I'll catch myself. If I just do it with words, I won't notice I am getting it wrong.
posted by metahawk at 7:50 PM on February 13, 2010

When I had this problem at five, I started to notice that all the exits were on the right on the stretch of I-280 my parents drove me down everyday. Whenever I needed to tell left from right I visualized a freeway exit on I-280: exit ramp on the right, guardrail or jersey barriers on the left. Still unconsciously do it sometimes today. (Good thing I never saw left-side exit ramps till a bit later in life when left and right were more established in my head.)
posted by brownpau at 8:33 PM on February 13, 2010

I have always understood that the ability to instantly know left and right is not always intuitive for those of us who are left handed.

The left handed is "L" trick, mentioned several times above, has worked beautifully for me, to the point that I don't need to actually make an L with my fingers anymore. I just think of the shape of my fingers. It takes a millisecond.

It took a while to get to this point, with several years of me actually making the "L" with my fingers, but now it's as close to innate as I think I'll ever get.
posted by suki at 8:43 PM on February 13, 2010

That "L with the left hand" thing? It never works for me - they both look like "L's" to me because I can read backwards with very little effort.

But, since you have a trick already, it's just a matter of practice. My mantra is "I write with my right hand." That's the only way I know my left from my right. I have a very strong sensation of "writing" with my right so the time lapse is not even a second, okay maybe a second or two. :)

Since you write with your left, instead of "This is the hand I write with, I write with my left hand, therefore this side is my left and that side is my right." Maybe you can try. "I write with my left hand so my left is not on the right."
posted by patheral at 8:48 PM on February 13, 2010

"Muscle memory": wear something that'll make right feel different than left. Not something you see, something you feel. Like a slightly constricting band or wrap around your right arm, just tight enough to feel (but without cutting off your blood, obviously). Or a glove, or a heavy bracelet.

Do this for a week. You find you'll flex, move, jingle the object as part of remembering right (or left), to check for its existence; once that's trained into you, you can remove the object, and the checking movement will be habituated and will without the object suffice to distinguish right form left.
posted by orthogonality at 8:50 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had the opposite problem recently: while I know right/left in front of me well enough (too well, it turns out,) I sometimes have to understand, during conditions of acute information overload, people telling me "my right elbow" and keeping it straight in my mind. I ALWAYS mixed it up, since their right is to my left.

I fixed it by standing in front of a white board whenever I had a few minutes, drawing a little stick figure with a smiley face on it, and labeling "right" and "left" on the stick man's right and left. Erase, repeat as long as I can stand it. Come back later, do it some more. I did that for about a week.

Now I visualize it in my mind without thinking about it. When someone says "my left foot" I automatically picture the labeled stick man. Maybe do the same thing (but labeled "right" on your right-hand side, of course.)
posted by ctmf at 9:04 PM on February 13, 2010

Make only left turns for a whole day. If you need to turn right, make a circle to the left instead. Every time you do it, chant "left turn, left turn, left turn..." I bet you it will stick in your mind after that. You might also get a day off.
posted by ctmf at 9:11 PM on February 13, 2010

wear a rubber bracelet on your dominant hand and name it and snap it like a bajillion times. the hand with the snappy bracelet (even after you take it off) is your (whichever) hand.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:14 PM on February 13, 2010

Oh, and while you're chanting "left turn," wave your left hand up and down like you're doing one-arm jumping jacks. Might as well associate the words, with the visible experience, with the physical movement all at the same time. The more senses you can incorporate, the better.
posted by ctmf at 9:15 PM on February 13, 2010

I have the same problem as metahawk. I know right from left. I can point in the correct direction. I can say the correct direction, but I cannot point and say the correct direction at the same time. I am excellent at directions and can find my way around anywhere without a map after one go, but when giving directions I always point right and say left or point left and say right. It's very frustrating. I've decided that something is just wired wrong in my brain. So when giving directions I try to either say left/right or point left/right.
posted by wherever, whatever at 9:27 PM on February 13, 2010

I solved it with a handful of rings on my right hand. Of course now that I am married....
posted by fifilaru at 9:52 PM on February 13, 2010

Raise your left hand and say "left" out loud. Raise your right hand, and say "right" out loud. Repeat several times a day for a month or two until it is instinctive.

You should be able to arrive at a point where one side of you "feels" left, and the other "feels" right.

Treat it like learning or perfecting a physical skill.
posted by Nameless at 10:00 PM on February 13, 2010

When I give directions I say "passenger side" or "driver side." I'm more concerned about getting other people lost than making wrong turns myself though.
posted by Lou Stuells at 10:51 PM on February 13, 2010

Lefty research (mind: research*, not some internet leftie site) has provided the interesting statistical information that this is a problem lefties typically have.

So I (one of them) have learned to be gentle with myself and to accept that I'm occasionally hearing myself say 'right' when I mean left. Somehow, my brain wants to mark the colloquial intrinsic value of 'right' as strong and, well, right, while it addresses the side that - for me - is the strong and right one (i.e. the left side. And I'm double-checking for typos).

[I also have learned to be more gentle with other people who mix up right and left, accepting it as a quirk of nature. Nature, obviously, had never in mind that we would evolve into calling sides names. Or something].

* specifically thinking of the work of J.B. Sattler, in German.
posted by Namlit at 1:48 AM on February 14, 2010

I also have this issue - I imagine I'm in the car at a divided intersection. When someone says to turn right, I imagine how the right turn is "big" and the change of direction that feels like. Similar for left turn being "small". I can get the feeling quicker than thinking intellectually about which is right and left.

* I am from Australia, reverse the sides if you're from a right-side driving country :)
posted by dave99 at 2:45 AM on February 14, 2010

I have the same problem, but it's better when I'm driving. I associate left with down (because of my turn-signal lever) and right with up -- so I hear left, I pull down, and that gets me going in the proper direction. I'm still terrible at giving directions with left/right, and have to think about which one's which in all other situations, but driving is not so bad.
posted by katemonster at 7:37 AM on February 14, 2010

For the Nth time I'll let you know that you are not alone. It was bad enough for me especially, in high school, that friends would give me cardinal directions. With north being based on the way we were currently facing, when telling me to make a turn while driving. I had absolutely no problem with that I didn't have to think about it at all. Even now I still have to think and either look at my hands or imagine which hand I write with. If I am told turn left and need to react in less than a few seconds I will miss the turn. Its frustrating but I have learned to live with it. I'd say it takes a little over a second for me to mentally connect the direction with the word as opposed to just knowing it.
posted by jmsta at 8:46 AM on February 14, 2010

* I am from Australia, reverse the sides if you're from a right-side driving country :)

It's funny you mention this: I learned to drive in the US (drives on the right side of the road), then went to Japan (drives on the left side of the road), where everytime I had to wait for right of way to make a big turn across traffic, it was still, in my head, a LEFT hand turn. Never mind that it was a turn to the right.

And dogcat, I really hope you get your answers, because I have the same curse. This make-an-L-with-your-hand shit has to go, as I am not 5 anymore.
posted by whatzit at 8:49 AM on February 14, 2010

The hand-thumbs thing does not work at all - both hands make an L, they're just facing different directions which means nothing at all to many people. Additionally, many people are not right-hand dominate enough for writing for that to be a muscle memory.

However, this ""I read text from LEFT to RIGHT" thing might work. I'm going to give it a try. Thank you, Mrs. Pterodactyl.

The worse thing for me, is that I am fine with cardinal directions and, except for cops and former military, most people are not and complete unconcerned about their inability to know something that never changes. The part of the world this is "left" changes every time you move. So, if someone depending on left-right directions drops a line in their instructions, they'll get hopelessly lost and act like it's not their fault and depend on you to get them to the lake house or whatever.

If you are female, gender assumptions will make this failure on your part more acceptable.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:38 AM on February 14, 2010

Throughout the day, keep doing the tricks even when you don't need to know right from left. Sitting on the computer, think "okay, which way's left?"

Take as much time as you need. Do this a lot. The only way to "not need tricks" is to practice them so often that you either (a) just get it, or (b) can do the trick instantly quickly without even making the L.

The hand-thumbs thing does not work at all - both hands make an L, they're just facing different directions which means nothing at all to many people.

The point is the one of the L's is facing the correct way, and one is making a backwards L. An L that's "facing a different direction" isn't an L.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:57 AM on February 14, 2010

I had trouble with right vs. left until I started driving regularly. I'm from the US, so we drive on the right-hand side of the road, right turns at intersections are "easy", and almost every exit is on the right-hand side. After driving for about a year, I felt the right direction being different from left, and I almost never make "no, your other left" errors.

Granted, I'm right-handed (but left-eyed, if that matters). It was really great to not have to think about it anymore. FWIW, I have a scar on the palm of my right hand which I used for years to distinguish right from left. While driving, I can't look at my palms, so I think that helped me internalize the right/left distinction.
posted by Xoder at 12:28 PM on February 14, 2010

Maybe you just lack the proper motivation?
posted by StarmanDXE at 12:55 PM on February 14, 2010

The connection you're trying to make is:

1. Hear the word left
2. Know which direction this means

Without any steps in between.

As a musician, I'm faced with this problem all the time. I hear the word "C major" and I have to know where to put my fingers, with as little time between the two as possible. Once a guy quizzed me "What's the fourth of C?" - it took me a minute to recall it (F), but the muscle memory was there, if I had a guitar in my hands I could have played it instantly. The guy quizzing me mocked me, telling me that I need to know this stuff instinctively - but that's the problem. I know it instinctively - in my fingers, but not always intellectually.

Practice like a musician. Practice like an athlete. Drill it in to your head. Visualize it.

You're driving- what's on your left? Oncoming traffic. The median. To turn left you often have to cross the oncoming traffic. Rest stops are often on the left.

What's on your right? Houses, stop signs. The passengers. Your blind spot. To turn right you never have to cross the median. To exit a highway, you turn right.

Visualize it for a couple of minutes each day. When you get in the car, as part of your ritual (check mirrors, buckle up) take a moment and think "left" and mime turning the car left. Think "right" and mine turning the car right.

Pretend you're on a 3 lane street and in the center lane. First check your left mirror and merge into the left lane. Is your turn signal on? Imagine coming up on a light - check for oncoming traffic, check for pedestrians, and make a left turn.

Right turns are completely different. Have you checked your blind spot? There is no oncoming traffic, and the turn is much sharper. Is your passenger in the way? Sometimes they lean forward and you can't see.

When you drive, do you lean your left arm on the window sill? Do you drive with your right arm?

Set an alarm to go off at a random time & think about this for a second before turning off the alarm. (Just make sure it doesn't go off when you're driving, otherwise you'll have to deal with turning off your alarm while on the road.) Get your friends to randomly call out "left" or "right" from time to time to see if you can remember quickly.

In other words, practice exactly the thing you want to accomplish - hearing the word & feeling the correct response.
posted by MesoFilter at 2:48 PM on February 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I think I fixed my left right confusion (or at least I made it better).

I spent some time trying to teach myself port & starboard, since some people on a similar thread said they had no problem with them even though they had trouble with left & right, and I wanted to start with fresh words to avoid any prior associations. I spent a few minutes a day walking around my apartment and saying the correct word when I made a turn (and also waving the corresponding hand). I also did this sometimes when I made turns while driving alone.

I spend more time on port than starboard, but I learned them both. I spent no time specifically practicing left and right. After a while, I realized that I no longer had to mentally reference my writing hand to tell left from right. It still takes a moment, but I don't have use any tricks or consciously resort to mental gymnastics to do it.

The network in my brain that tells one side from the other probably a just needed a bit more training to increase it's accuracy and consistency.

Thanks guys!
posted by dogcat at 3:53 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I found these post late in the game, but can't tell you how much it helps to know I'm one of many who can't tell left from right in an instant. My dad couldn't either (nor can we spell or type well either) but as most of these posts say - it is an annoyance, not a major issue. Oh and when I studied a foreign language, I purposely did not learn the words for left and right as that new layer of translation would just add too much confusion and frustration.

At 16, when I got in the car to take my driver's test, I told the tester to let me know way in advance which way I needed to turn so I had time to think about it. I'm sure that probably rattled him a bit, but I know that being nervous just makes it worse. I don't think I had a choice - and I passed, so I guess it worked.

My HS friend had the best solution for me in terms of driving. She'd hit the dashboard close to me for a left turn and close to the passenger side of the dashboard for a right turn. I have no problem following the sound, it's just the word translation that is the issue.

I particularly like the ideas posted by Mesofilter on Feb 14. Music has always been an issue for me too and I realized the difference between knowing and doing. This method of training makes sense to me and I'm going to try it out. Paying the $5 to join this site was well worth it! Thanks!

Oh and BTW - I have no trouble with directions based on north, south, east and west. They never change no matter which way I turn, but left and right are dependent on my (or others) orientation. I tell people that this just shows I'm not self-centered. It's my story and I'm sticking to it!
posted by malian at 9:23 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

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