Direction Confusion
July 18, 2005 9:41 PM   Subscribe

Why are left/right and clockwise/counterclockwise so easy to get mixed up, but never up/down or forward/backward?
posted by jimfl to Science & Nature (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
because the former are more complicated directions that require thought, while the latter are simple directions. i reckon.
posted by puke & cry at 9:48 PM on July 18, 2005

posted by rafter at 9:50 PM on July 18, 2005

When you are facing someone, clockwise and left/right need further explanation (your left or mine?) up and down and forward/backward are constant and so more embedded in thought and action. But a lot depends on your ears too, so not 'never'.
posted by tellurian at 10:16 PM on July 18, 2005

When I was a child, I would alway mix right and left up. My guess is that the difference is that your right and left arms/sides are mostly the same. Whereas the body parts for figuring up/down front/back are different, and clockwise isn't a direction in the same way. Though now that I think about it, you could use knowledge of clockwise to figure out right.
posted by drezdn at 10:33 PM on July 18, 2005

There is a biological explanation, in part. Rafter hit the nail on the head, pun intended, since it is of course in the head that the right half of the body is controlled by the left, and vice versa. Many people are, at least a bit, slightly ambidextrous. Thus the predominance of being right handed or left handed is just that - a predominance.

Think of looking in a mirror - you'd rarely if ever mistake up from down visually, but you easily can left/right. A lot of that has to do with the way your brain interprets the visual signals.

The combination of these two factors, among others, probably means that the "hard wiring" for right and left are more flexible/adaptable than the ones for up/down and forward/backward.
posted by birdsquared at 10:39 PM on July 18, 2005

Clockwise and counter-clockwise are human-created divisions that are arbitrary (though their precursors sunwise and anti-sunwise were based in nature). That makes it primarily an intellectural exercise to first understand then discern the difference. Thus easier to make mistakes.

Up/down and front/back are more visceral. We see forward (as opposed to back) almost always, so it's really more like front/notfront. Same with up/down... gravity works in one direction. In any event, we learn these distinctions very early... without needing to name them. They become a part of how we view the world.

For more on how humans shape space around the body, check out Yi-Fu Tuan's excellent Space and Place. There's one chapter that explores this topic, including a discussion of right/left that I can't recall at the moment.
posted by Jeff Howard at 11:24 PM on July 18, 2005

The front/notfront theory from Jeff resonates as a good explanation, but the "left-right is more complex because it requires more explaining" does not. I think left-right is by design the easier concept to communicate, which is why we mess it up so readily.

Our ability to teach manual skills brings this to mind. In order to imitate tool construction, for instance, we need to be able to easily map from what we are seeing into what we are doing. It has to be easy to trick our brain into mirroring what we see.

Since it is so easy to map from left to right and vice versa, our own consciousness inherits the ability/disability via the concept of leaky abstractions.

If we had a really distinct sense of left and right (like we do for front and back), then this theory predicts that it might interfere with our ability to ape a behaviour we see.

Perhaps this is also why we are one of the few species that is fooled into seeing ourselves in mirrors, too.
posted by clord at 12:06 AM on July 19, 2005

The very shape and form of our bodies is based on bilateral symetry (your left side mirrors your right), but not vertical symetry or front/back symetry, thus left/right are functionally identical, and so easy to mix up. I don't have a chest on my back, or legs on the top of my torso, but I do have an identical arm/eye/leg/foot/etc on both sides of me.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:29 AM on July 19, 2005

For years as a child i could only tell which hand was left vs right by checking which hand had the freckle on my third finger (the left). I also couldn't remember if it was 5 cents or 10 cents that was called 'nickle' or 'dime'. I think the left/right thing is harder to remember because the naming and the distinction seem superficially imposed, whereas 'up/down' seems to 'really' exist. (Of course the same goes for 'clockwise', since that's just a machine we've invented, and not a concept inherent to direction.) I can't imagine a culture that didn't have concepts for up/down backwards/forwards, but I could easily imagine having no concept for right/left, which is really only relevant when we want to create rules and definitions for things, like writing or driving, but doesn't matter in instinct-driven situations.

For instance, people here in Uganda (I live here, but am Canadian) never ask if you should turn right or left to get somewhere, they ask if they should go up or down. Or directions will say 'towards town' or 'before the tree' or 'across from' or 'behind the..', but never left or right of anything.
posted by Kololo at 3:16 AM on July 19, 2005

Sure we are symmetric, but that begs the question a bit, does it not?

"Why is left/right hard?"
"Because we are symmetric, which means it is hard to tell the difference between the sides!"

I think there is something more going on with the left-right confusion than just visual similarity. Especially considering that virtually everyone picks a dominant early on!

If you are right-handed, why is it still hard to tell left from right sometimes? Since you write intuitively with your right hand, why can't you turn right intuitively sometimes? Why is it that a species with a dominant side need to remember which hand is the right hand by looking for freckles and stuff?
posted by clord at 4:25 AM on July 19, 2005

up/down = gravity
front/back = eyes
posted by handee at 4:40 AM on July 19, 2005

Body symmetry is not the only effect in play here. Humans spend most of their waking hours oriented perpendicular to the ground. "Up" and "down" are therefore nearly constants in our perception, as sky and ground. However, other fixed landmarks such as trees have a dynamic representation. Sometimes they are to our left, sometimes to our right.

Left and right are unique in the fact that one's physical body is the only landmark generally available as a frame of reference for these directions. That problem is compounded by the fact that our bodies have horizontal symmetry, and therefore make relatively poor landmarks for determining horizontal orientation.
posted by Galvatron at 7:24 AM on July 19, 2005

Nah, it’s all bilateral symmetry. Back/Front is also entirely dependent on your body too, and nobody confuses those.
posted by signal at 7:30 AM on July 19, 2005

I think there is something more going on with the left-right confusion than just visual similarity.

That's always been my impression. I'm hopeless with left/right, clockwise/counter-clockwise, but also east/west, horizontal/vertical and latitude/longitude. I don't have this problem with north/south, up/down, back/front.

I've always thought there was some mental toggle that disambiguated things like these that my brain just lacks because I feel like my mind's stuck in the same sort of groove when I try to figure them out [left-or-right, left-or-right...]. I have the same sort of problem differentiating between two things that just don't have enough semantic nubs for me to tell them apart. For example: Fort Smith and Little Rock Arkansas, one is the capitol, one is where my relatives live, I always confuse them because their names sound the same to me. Or, my pals TJ and Casey, one is the older brother and one is the younger brother and I can never remember which name goes with which guy. I can never remember how a door locks or unlocks and I don't know if there is a default way to turn water on and off, I always try it both ways every time.

Whatever most people have as a pretty simple left/right confusion, I seem to have a more severe version of it and I've always been curious to see if there was one teeny part of the brain responsible for this whole set of bipolarities.
posted by jessamyn at 7:31 AM on July 19, 2005

Nah, it’s all bilateral symmetry. Back/Front is also entirely dependent on your body too, and nobody confuses those.

Apples and oranges. As Jeff Howard points out, determining back/front is more or less equivalent to classifying things we can see versus things we cannot. Which really ain't too hard.
posted by Galvatron at 7:41 AM on July 19, 2005

Because left/right/cw/ccw are arbitrary and abstract.

What direction is "left"? There is no answer. It entirely depends on your POV. If you're facing someone, a direction that is left to you is right to them... even though it is the same direction!
posted by five fresh fish at 9:16 AM on July 19, 2005

PiggybackFilter: Why does a mirror seem to flip an image horizontally (i.e. raise your right hand and your reflection's left hand is apparently raised), but not vertically? This seems to me like a really stupid question, but isn't that kind of weird?
posted by knave at 9:27 AM on July 19, 2005

The mirror flipping thing that knave brought up is because mirrors actually don't swap left and right -- they swap front and back. I hold a piece of paper away from me, with the writing on the opposite side, and in the mirror I can see the side with the writing on it. The left-right flipping actually occurred when I turned the paper away from me to hold it up to the mirror. I had to flip the paper around to do so, and in so doing, placed the right edge of the paper on my left and the left edge of the paper on my right.
posted by nobody at 9:49 AM on July 19, 2005

(Hold a piece of paper up to a light source with the writing on the side closer to the light and when you look through the paper you'll clearly see "mirror-image" writing.)
posted by nobody at 9:51 AM on July 19, 2005

Look at it like this, knave: You raise the hand to your right; the image in the mirror also raises the hand to your right. There's really no ambiguity there.

The deeper question is why, for example, the text on a book appears to be left-right reversed when you look at it in a mirror compared to looking directly at the book as it faces you. But to look at the text in the mirror, you had to rotate the book about a vertical axis. You could just as easily rotate the book about a horizontal axis, in which case the text will read left-to-right but the characters will be flipped vertically.
posted by Galvatron at 9:52 AM on July 19, 2005

For instance, people here in Uganda (I live here, but am Canadian) never ask if you should turn right or left to get somewhere, they ask if they should go up or down. Or directions will say 'towards town' or 'before the tree' or 'across from' or 'behind the..', but never left or right of anything.

Sorry... not that this is really important to the thread, but I don't understand. What if the directions from "here" to the "store" require a left-hand turn? There has to be something for "left" and "right". If I hold two identical marbles, one in each hand, and ask Mr. Ugandan to select one, without pointing or using any gestures at all.... how does he differentiate the two, verbally?
posted by Necker at 11:09 AM on July 19, 2005

(Err..if the marbles are otherwise undifferentiable, why should it matter?)
posted by nobody at 11:46 AM on July 19, 2005

Haha.. ok, good point. I'm just trying to figure out how it is that left-right doesn't exist... if that is indeed what he/she is saying. So let's change that to, instead of marbles, they're identical plastic "Easter eggs"... the kind that split in the middle. One of them has nothing inside, the other has one. million. dollars inside. How does someone from Uganda say, "I'll take the one on the left"?
posted by Necker at 11:58 AM on July 19, 2005

necker, it would be, say, 'the marble closer to the door', or 'the marble farther from me' or 'the marble that was in the dish', or most likely, 'that marble' combined with pointing. If the store was on the left and the mango tree was on the right, it would be 'away from the mango tree'.

That being said, people do use left and right sometimes, but it seems like an afterthought for the sake of the foreigners, and often if you tell someone to turn left or right they don't get what you mean. Since i haven't quite grokked 'up' and 'down' when there's no hills involved, i do a lot of pointing and saying 'that way' when I'm in a car that's moving. I still resort to left and right a lot, because decades of conditioning tell me to, even though it often doesn't clarify anything.

p.s. I am a 'she' ;-)
posted by Kololo at 1:02 PM on July 19, 2005

Response by poster: Mmmmm..... Semantic nubs.

I am not entirely satisfied with any of the answers yet, though there are some interesting things to ponder. I have wondered if it had something to do with the eyes being set side by side. If our eyes were set one on top of the other, would we confuse up/down instead (unlikely, since gravity acts upon our inner ear).

It would be an interesting experiment to design an optical apparatus that made it seem like ones eyes were arrayed vertically, and have people perform various tasks while wearing it.
posted by jimfl at 7:15 PM on July 19, 2005

Sure we are symmetric, but that begs the question a bit, does it not?

No, it is a concise explanation for the confusion - the experience of front/back and up/down differs greatly on account of the solid differences in physical structures involved, while left/right differs not at all and is an artifical distinction with little to no basis on physical structure or experience.

It would be begging the question if the question was "Why do we have bilateral symetry?"
posted by -harlequin- at 4:36 PM on July 21, 2005

To clarify: It would be begging the question if we had any reason to think there should be a vastly different structure-driven experience for left/right the same way there is front/back, but there isn't. The inescapable physical constraints imposed by the structural difference of front/back are so large, and the inescapable physical constrains imposed by the structural difference of left/right are so non-existant that it seems absurd to think the difference is just as big and real but for some mysterious reason our brains just don't get it. No, the difference between left and right is genuinely and really far less substantial and meaningful.

We have no reason to suspect our brain is treating left/right with any less skill than front/back. Left/right demonstratably has less to distinguish it.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:45 PM on July 21, 2005

Also supporting the lack-of-any-real-difference being the cause of the confusion, all the people I know who struggle with left/right solve it by searching for the biggest difference between left and right they can find, and using that at their reference point, even though it's still a very subtle difference compared to that of up/down or left/right. Eg some people mentally pretend to be doing something where habit has ingrained a difference, such as driving or writing, and see which lane they're in or which hand they're using. Others look at their thumbs and see which one makes the "L" shape with their hand signifying "left".

This all suggests that the difficulty with left/right stems from the differences between left and right being being limited to small and subtle things, unlike front/back, where the reference point is inherently part of the structural concept.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:59 PM on July 21, 2005

People, cut the pseudo-anatomical mumbo-jumbo: we are bilaterally simmetric: ergo, in the only frame of reference that matters: ourselves, there is no difference between left and right.
posted by signal at 5:56 PM on July 22, 2005

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