Which hand is my left one?
May 31, 2006 7:45 PM   Subscribe

Why do some people have a difficult time remembering things such as left and right?

I was giving my father directions to one of our favorite restaurants the other day while he was driving. I told him to turn left at the next light, and he moved his way into the right lane. I told him his other left, and he realized his mistake.

I know a few people who are like this, and I wonder why he has a difficult time immediately remembering something as simple as left and right. I know he has commented that he does not have a very good long term memory in general, and I know this to be true of myself as well, but I've never had trouble with left and right.

Has anyone ever run across an article on this subject or have any insight into this problem?
posted by Kraki to Society & Culture (50 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Acting destroyed my ability to immediately distinguish right and left. I got so used to stage-right and stage-left that regular directions are no longer intuitive, even though I haven't been on a stage in years. (And my yoga teachers, who tend to mirror students' movements when standing in front of class and are thus often saying "left arm" while moving their own right arm, seem to have similar problems.) Living in another country and getting used to different words for those directions didn't help.

I know there are other reasons for the confusion, but once you realize they're kinda arbitrary words, you're lost. Possibly both spiritually and physically.
posted by occhiblu at 7:56 PM on May 31, 2006

i have always had this problem, think it is a form of dyslexia
posted by cellar at 7:58 PM on May 31, 2006

Anecdotally, the person I know who's famous for getting left/right mixed up is also mildly dyslexic and blames it on this. Just one data point, no basis for an assertion about cause.
posted by Hildago at 8:05 PM on May 31, 2006

I've always mixed up left and right horribly (I can't reverse directions, either). I always just figured out it was a form of dyslexia. It's not so much that I can't remember what's right and what's left, but they never seemed to get written into my brain to become instinct.

I have a stunningly awful sense of direction, too.
posted by kalimac at 8:08 PM on May 31, 2006

I don't, far as I know, have any other kind of mental dysfunction, but I do have to think harder about left and right than I suspect I should have to. It's the same with east and west, as well, curiously enough. Otherwise, I think my sense of direction is fine. It's certainly an oddity. I wonder if there's maybe a hereditary component to it. My father and his father were the same, but my mother and sister have no such trouble.
posted by normy at 8:18 PM on May 31, 2006

The way children learn left and right is interesting. It doesn't come easily. One strategy that's very simple and works is to remember that the thumb and forefinger of the left hand form the letter 'L'. My son rapidly progressed to internalising left and right once he realised this.

Personally I'm never confused about left and right, but I know enough people who are to realise that it isn't obvious.
posted by unSane at 8:21 PM on May 31, 2006

I have a problem with it too, and have to use the 'Rightie tighty, leftie loosey,' matra whenever changing a lightbulb or using a screwdriver.
Not dyslexic, but I've never been very spatially aware, which may have something to do with it.

unSane's comment about internalizing rings very true to me, too. I'm gonna have to try the 'L' thing!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:29 PM on May 31, 2006

This is me! I cannot for the life of me get the words right (um, correct). My mom and sister are the same way. However, I'm not dyslexic at all (except maybe for this?), and have a great sense of direction (as in, spatial orientation when I'm in a place, either new or familiar). I don't have a problem with east or west, in Chicago at least, where it's easy. Oddly, I'm okay with "port" and "starboard," which I'm considering switching to. It's a pain trying to direct someone driving, because while I can always point the right direction, the words never come out right, no matter how hard I think about it. I've been wondering about this for years.

Oh, and family members with the same problem tend to have terrible senses of direction. As in, they're always lost, and are just used to it, which I just can't fathom. It's just the words that cause me trouble. I've been thinking about getting "left" and "right" tattooed on my hands, but I'm afraid I'd get a tattooist with the same problem and not realize until it's too late.
posted by ruby.aftermath at 8:31 PM on May 31, 2006

Ditto on the dyslexia connection. I'm mildly dyslexic and have always had trouble with right and left ever since I was a little kid. I generally have to think about which is right or left for a second before getting it right. I've also made the same mistake driving as your dad did.
posted by puffin at 8:57 PM on May 31, 2006

(See also this previous question.)
posted by uncleozzy at 8:58 PM on May 31, 2006

I had a terrible time remembering until I was about 14. Up till then, I would always check to see which was my writing hand and I could work it out from there. At 14, my aunt told me my left hand made an L. That helped a lot. However, I still sometimes get confused. I am not dyslexic.
posted by acoutu at 9:02 PM on May 31, 2006

An anthro professor I once had called this "polarity dyslexia" or "polar dyslexia" (I can't remember which). Googling doesn't turn anything up, but many dyslexia websites seem to list "difficulty telling left from right" as a symptom of dyslexia in children.
posted by tracicle at 9:03 PM on May 31, 2006

Another voice for those of us who can't keep those words straight. I seem to get compass points almost instinctively, though - I would swear I can *feel* them sometimes, and I have a very good sense of direction It's very rare for me to get lost, especially if I've been someplace even once before.

For me, I suspect the ease of east-west-north-south is related to the inability to do right-left, though. The compass points are constant, whereas left may be east if you're standing one way or north if you're standing another.... I can get "east" is *always* this direction, but get confused if "right" depends on which way I'm standing.
posted by dilettante at 9:05 PM on May 31, 2006

One strategy that's very simple and works is to remember that the thumb and forefinger of the left hand form the letter 'L'.

Of course if you're severely dyslexic you can't tell if the L is backwards or not, so it didn't help me.
When I was 8, I accidentally cut a deep gash in my left forefinger. I could then use the scar as a landmark to tell left from right.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:08 PM on May 31, 2006

For decades my father had trouble with left and right. Just a few months ago a brain scan showed a golfball sized tumor that was pressing on the part of the brain that determines left and right. Not saying you have one, just giving information.
posted by obol at 9:20 PM on May 31, 2006

I was in a minor car accident because of this. I was following a young woman who put on her left turn signal and slowed to turn, and as I was passing her on the right-hand side, she abruptly turned right, smashing into my fender. She got out angrily, telling me she had signalled her turn. I pointed to the still-blinking signal. She was quite embarrassed. Then her mother got out of the passenger side and repeated the scenario.

Interesting, because if her signal had gone off at the accident, there was no way I could have convinced her that she had signalled left instead of right, and she wouldn't have been lying. I would have been out my deductible.

As it was, her insurance had to pay for my damage.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:20 PM on May 31, 2006

Hmmm, all these comments about internalising the concept and about 'left' and 'right' being arbitrary words make me wonder if maybe the problem here (apart from those that are dyslexic) is that some people just haven't learnt it properly at some point in their lives?

As an example, look at the people in this post. Most seem to have an example of a method or strategy they used to learn it. ruby.aftermath even says that s/he can't do left and right, but is perfectly ok with port and starboard, which are basically the same thing.

So, back to the original poster, is it possible that your Dad had a problem learning it when he was a kid? Maybe his parent's were dyslexic and had trouble with it, so couldn't teach him the concept properly?

Personally, I think the whole discussion raises some interesting questions about our representations of the world, just like the recent post on colour.
posted by ranglin at 9:22 PM on May 31, 2006

I know some people who seem to have difficulty because they're bilingual. If you're talking to them in one language only they'll be fine, but if you hold a conversation with them in two languages, they're liable to trip up.
posted by juv3nal at 9:30 PM on May 31, 2006

The only person I've known with this problem was a girl who called a left turn a "wheel" and a right turn a "door". She was terrible about distinguishing right from left, but understood the steering wheel and the passenger side door. Driving her around that first time freaked me out.
"Door! Door! Door!"
"What the heck are you talking about? Is one of the car doors open?"
"You were supposed to turn back there."
Obviously, she would have had some trouble overseas in countries where the steering wheel is actually on the "door" side of the car.
posted by emelenjr at 9:40 PM on May 31, 2006

I'm right-handed, but my left side is stronger, and my right ear is fucked up from birth, so I'm left-eared. Unless I physically pick up a writing utensil, I'd swear that my left side is the dominant side. Since I know I'm right-handed, this messes me up quite a bit.

(I do the "left-hand makes an L shape" thingy in front of class, to my students amusement.)
posted by notsnot at 9:45 PM on May 31, 2006

Response by poster: I'm not sure about his learning left and right when he was young, but as for dyslexia, he's never had any other symptoms that are associated with dyslexia. Has anyone ever seen an article on this subject?
posted by Kraki at 9:47 PM on May 31, 2006

Occhiblu, I have the same difficulty! I never had trouble with my rights and lefts until I was in acting school, and now I'm screwed my life.
posted by Zosia Blue at 10:07 PM on May 31, 2006

left/right, east/west, positive numbers and negative numbers - algebraic transforms that depend on knowing which outcome to choose fuck me up but good. I also get confused about which direction to take a melody when playing a lead even if the melody is one I have memorized - I can't ever remember which direction to modulate, higher or lower.
posted by mwhybark at 10:17 PM on May 31, 2006

When I was younger I had trouble telling left from right, a poor sense of direction, clumsiness and extreme disorganization. My school sent me to see a psychiatrist for it when I was in the 4th grade, and he diagnosed dyslexia and recommended a "special school," but my parents refused. He also gave me a battery of standardized tests and I scored well for everything except "spatial ability" and my numbers there were abysmal. I was the only kid in my school to be in both the gifted program and the remedial program at the same time.

I had a very weird brain as a kid. Then I smoked a lot of weed in college and now, in my 30's, I'm pretty average.
posted by hazyjane at 11:14 PM on May 31, 2006

I have this problem too: I need to consciously think about left vs. right; it doesn't come instinctively. The "L" thing doesn't work for me - mentally I can't get over the fact that if I turn my hands over, my right hand makes the "L". And also it takes as much time to figure out which direction an "L" goes as it does to think about left and right.

I'm not dyslexic (as far as I know - I have excellent spelling and mathematic skills), though I have poor spatial intelligence. Apart from not being able to reliably verbalise directions, I'm a good "navigator" (in the car, or at the mall, or when we're walking...). So usually I just point instead of speaking.
posted by ajbw at 11:46 PM on May 31, 2006

I'm like dilettante and mwhybark. I have trouble with left/right and with opposites generally — if two things are perfect opposites, I have trouble telling them apart. (I dont have trouble with negative numbers, because they're very different multiplicatively.) The "L-shaped thumb = left" doesn't work for me because "L" is almost as recognizabe to me if mirror reversed. I once went to put a sticker on a window, and spent quite a while trying to figure out which side of the (transparent except for some lettering) was the "front" from which it was intended to be read, because it was equally easy to read backwards. On the other hand, I have a pretty good sense of direction, pretty good pathfinding ability, good spatial and visualization ability, and I've always been a voracious reader; I'm certainly not dyslexic in the literal sense.

(But I have read that this kind of mental difficulty is associated with dyslexia. Why it sometimes manifests as actual dyslexia and sometimes not, I wouldn't know.)
posted by hattifattener at 1:26 AM on June 1, 2006

Re cars — my mom also has trouble with right vs. left. The solution my family came up with is to refer to "your side" or "my side" of the car, which works if the driver and front-seat passenger are talking to each other.
posted by hattifattener at 1:28 AM on June 1, 2006

I learned to drive in the States. For the last 3 years I've lived in left-side-driving countries. Unless I am thinking carefully, I consistently call the turn across on-coming traffic a "left", even though here, it is a right.

Otherwise, I'm fine with left and right. I seem to recall having some trouble as a child, but I got angry about it once, and drilled it into my head.
posted by Goofyy at 2:01 AM on June 1, 2006

Acting destroyed my ability to immediately distinguish right and left.

I don't get this; for an actor, stage right just means right. Unless you're acting from the house.

I have a generally poor sense of direction (that is, I'm bad at navigating in unfamiliar territory), but I've never had trouble with left and right, and have a slightly difficult time imagining it.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:39 AM on June 1, 2006

I have an excellent sense of direction (finding my way within cities, for instance) BUT in other ways I'm not very spacially intelligent (figuring out how objects fit together, for example). I am not dyslexic in the slightest, but I sometimes have to pause to distinguish left from right. I can't put my finger on when it comes naturally and when not. But for a concept that is supposedly so fundamental, it's sort of fascinating that there would be any conscious thought involved at all.

The whole "left hand forms an L" thing is new to me, but it sounds good. My memory device is that my heart is on the left side of the body. As a kid, saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day, with my hand across my heart, helped ingrain on which side my heart was. I guess if it stopped beating and I couldn't tell it was there, I'd have bigger problems than distinguishing right from left.
posted by veggieboy at 2:40 AM on June 1, 2006

I'm in with the same Left / Right uselessness. Also East / West cause me problems, but no problems with North / South, I'm always reciting the "Never Eat Shredded Wheat" acronym to work it out.

I always just put it down to never really learning them properly when I was a kid. Do get slightly annoyed with the current trend to label everything as a disease though, whilst I agree there may be serious underlying causes in some situations, why is there now this rush to label it as dyslexia, as if it's a badge of honour. (Not implying that Dyslexia is a badge of dishonour of course)
posted by lloyder at 3:29 AM on June 1, 2006

I can remember 'left' but I can only think of 'right' as 'not left'. I'm not dyslexic.
posted by salmacis at 3:35 AM on June 1, 2006

When I was young I never had an issue with Left/Right, but these days I do need to pause a second before the directions come to me. I know fully well why they are slowly leaving me, and thats because Left/Right are the least noticeable movements you can make compared to Up/Down and Forward/Backward, and a rarely need to refer to them.

Oh, and East/West? If it wasn't for the NEWS acronym, I'd be screwed.
posted by a. at 4:46 AM on June 1, 2006

much like hattifattener... my mom has trouble with left and right in the car. It used to drive my dad mad. She now says "this way" for right and "that way" for left. She used to just point and he would get upset and say "I can't hear your finger." At least my dad gets it now.
posted by nimsey lou at 5:33 AM on June 1, 2006

Similar, to what a few others have said, my mother can't recall them quickly either. She chalks it up to her profession as a dental hygienist, where she has to deal with "patient's right" and "patient's left," which are often the opposite of what her perspective is.

I always tell her to make a fist and stick out your thumb and index finger on each hand. The one that makes an "L" in the correct direction is you left hand.
posted by coolin86 at 5:41 AM on June 1, 2006

Growing up this was the big joke in my family. Port/Starboard, no problem. East/West, no problem. Left/Right? We didn't think much of it till a large oil tanker crashed into a bridge in Portland, Maine in '96. The end run of the cause of the crash was that the docking pilot was giving directions to the captain and got his left and right mixed up. The ship's clearance was 5ft on either side and that little mistake was all it took. There is a story about it in the Portland Press Herald on the frontpage of the October 1, 1996 issue.

The problem was so common amongst my college friends we resorted to giving directions by holding a hand near the driver and just constantly pointing in the correct direction.

Part of the problem could be linguistic. Right has multiple meanings, right? So that may cause confusion for something that is supposed to be a constant, which is all that is needed to delay the decision. Technically "port" should suffer from the same problem but the alternate meanings for port are physical things rather than abstract so it is probably a different part of the brain. It'd be interesting to see how people using other languages suffer from this.
posted by jwells at 6:00 AM on June 1, 2006

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one with this problem! I have great difficulties with left and right. I even messed them up on a driver's test once. When I'm in the car I usually say "this way" or "that way" and tap the glass (if its close to me). I have no problems with spatial ability: I know where I'm going on the street, in malls and I can read maps quite well. I have no problems with the compass points either (though I do have to think hard about east and west sometimes). I do have issues with reading/writing words backwards, rearranging numbers (especially phone numbers) and I prefer to read magazines backwards (from the back cover to the front - this may just be an idiosyncracy though). Neither of my parent's is dylexic but an uncle on my mother's side was.
posted by LunaticFringe at 6:35 AM on June 1, 2006

I have trouble with left and right.. when i was probably five or so, my mom pointed out a little birthmark on my right side. I'm in my 30s now and still use that to figure out right and left, except when I'm in a car. In a car, its usually no problem. Also, I'm fairly ambidexterous. Not sure if that's related. Holding up my hands to see which makes the letter "L" works fine, but.. I'd have to hold up my hands.
posted by duckstab at 6:52 AM on June 1, 2006

I have always mixed up my left and right, mostly pointing right and saying left or vice-versa. One time I actually got into a car accident when I put on my left turn signal and turned right.
posted by elvissa at 6:58 AM on June 1, 2006

Another data point. I had the problem long before I started acting and became a stagehand, though. I'm not dyslexic and have an excellent sense of direction.
It's been a source of humor and frustration my entire life.
Once in the emergency room I was being given a neurological exam after a head wound. The nurse noticed my confusion and told me to hold up my hands so my left hand would make an "L." I held up my hands with my palms facing me.
posted by Floydd at 7:33 AM on June 1, 2006

I always have to stop and think about which is which. I put it down to simply not being a physical person - I very much live in my head and have to consciously guide my body through everything. I'm klutzy and awkward (though far less so than I used to be). My few physical skills are all very hard won, and quite often I would have little ways of doing something that other people would find odd. I make about half my numbers from the bottom up, for instance. I have to see a pattern in motions before I can learn them.

The time my brother was putting up crown molding and new baseboards in my apartment I kept tripping over the pile of new trim. I couldn't see it was there and then step over it — I had to remember it was there, and it would have taken many trippings before it became automatic for me to swerve around it. My brother gave up and just moved it out of the way, commenting that he might be minus a sister before I learned. This is why nothing in my apartment is allowed to stray out of place for long — it's too hazardous. But when everything is where it's supposed to be, I can glide around in the dark.
posted by orange swan at 7:57 AM on June 1, 2006

ludwig_van, internet research would seem to indicate you're right (heh) about stage directions.... which either means every director I worked with taught them wrong, or else I'm getting confused because I also directed and stage-managed.

I still blame the theater :-)
posted by occhiblu at 8:14 AM on June 1, 2006

In the natural world (at the macroscopic level) it is virtually impossible to distinguish left from right. You cannot tell if a picture of natural scenery is reversed unless you are familiar with the scene. I imagine an animal following its prey is not thinking it went left, but rather it went that way, or it follows the noise or scent. Chirality in the everyday world likely developed with spears and swords, then letters and numbers, which compared to the evolution of the brain, is not long.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:55 AM on June 1, 2006

1. Many people think mirrors reverse left and right.
That's absurd if you think about it, because how could a mirror do that without also reversing up and down?
A mirror reverses front and back.

2. Why do people think photos don't look like them, yet others say the opposite? Because faces have asymmetries, and people are used to seeing their image reversed in a mirror, whereas others see them normally.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:04 AM on June 1, 2006

I too have trouble with left / right, when put on the spot. What i do to remeber is just look at my hands and think about which one i write/right with.
posted by miles at 9:54 AM on June 1, 2006

I was terrible about this growing up, and only when I learned to drive was I finally able to 'get' it. I still have some trouble with it, like if I'm giving directions I'll sometimes say right if I mean left and I'm not concentrating.

In high school physics I leaned the "right hand rule" for electromagnetism and it was just meaningless I would actually have to look at my hand to figure it out. Later I came up with the "counterclockwise" rule which is that electrical current comes out of counterclockwise magnetic fields, which was much easier to remember.
posted by delmoi at 10:11 AM on June 1, 2006

I have a problem with it too, and have to use the 'Rightie tighty, leftie loosey,' matra whenever changing a lightbulb or using a screwdriver.

I hate it when people say you have to 'turn' something to the right or to the left... If the top goes left, the bottom goes right Left and right dot really make sense on a circle, at least not to me :)

But like I said, I've never had any problem with clockwise and counterclockwise. Maybe I should start thinking of left turns as 'counterclockwise' and right turns as 'clockwise'.

This is me! I cannot for the life of me get the words right (um, correct). My mom and sister are the same way. However, I'm not dyslexic at all (except maybe for this?), and have a great sense of direction (as in, spatial orientation when I'm in a place, either new or familiar).

I'm the same. I can find my way around town with no problem and if I get directed or take a car trip someone I can trace the car trip again with no problems at all. I can even drive all the way from my home in Ames to my Dad's house in Texas without needing to look at a map.

posted by delmoi at 10:29 AM on June 1, 2006

I'm like LunaticFringe: I always know which direction I *mean*, and my spatial skills are quite good. But I often *say* "right" when I mean "left," and vice-versa. I do this in French and German too. Usually I realize my mistake as soon as I make it, and then I correct myself. I've never used a turn signal incorrectly, or gone in the wrong direction. My problem seems to lie solely in the verbalization of direction. And clearly there's a feedback loop once I verbalize, because I usually realize my error before someone else points it out to me. I'm left-handed, FWIW, and in my anecdotal experience, lefties tend to suffer disproportionately from this problem.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:56 PM on June 1, 2006

Count me in as another one who managed to internalize port/starboard but not left/right. It's likely that if I'm familiar with the area that I know n/s/e/w as well. But left/right? I'm making the L with both hands & comparing.

The thing is, I don't remember at any point strategizing how I was going to remember or internalize port/starboard, I just *remembered* them.

If I have to use right or left, I have to stop and consciously think about which direction I need to use... and even then sometimes I end up saying, "No! I meant the other left! You know, left, by which I mean right!"
posted by susanbeeswax at 9:40 PM on June 1, 2006

It is SO nice to see that others deal with this too. I have real problems with Right and Left, that got easier when I learned to drive (I think the physical motion of turning a wheel helped), but it's never completely gone away. As a nurse I had to be very careful, both to get it right and to do it fast so nobody noticed.
I have also had problems with AM and PM. (I've had more than one bad alarm clock episode.) I read well, but really can't spell. I've always thought it was a slight form of dyslexia or just a little different wiring in my head.
But in thinking about this I wonder if knowing left and right was so important in history. Before driving cars or horses was it so needed?
Still it's nice to know I'm not alone.
posted by what-i-found at 9:41 PM on June 1, 2006

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