By Belle Elving
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
I can't tell right from left.
It hasn't been a serious problem. Except that night on a freeway heading into San Francisco when, befuddled by an "Exit Left" sign, I hit the brakes and got totaled by a really fast sports car. Or the day I directed a footsore family of tourists 180 degrees away from the White House. Or the time I assembled an Ikea bookcase with the dowel holes for the shelves on the outside. Or the countless times I've annoyed my husband by telling him "Turn, um, left. No wait, I'm sorry . . ."
It's a mild disability that has not seriously limited my options in life. Of course, a career in air traffic control would have been unwise. Synchronized swimming and ballroom dancing were not in the cards. (Playing cards is a bit of a problem, actually. I'm never sure which way to pass them.) But I'm usually fine driving alone. I know which way I want to turn; I just don't know what to call it.
On the upside, it's delightful to discover others who share this condition, including, as it happens, the editor of the Health section and the editor who wrote the accompanying medical misadventure story. And we are not that small a group. John R. Clarke, a professor of surgery at Drexel University in Philadelphia, estimates that about 15 percent of the population faces some degree of left/right challenge. Eric Chudler, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, puts the figure a bit higher, having found that more than 26 percent of college students and 19 percent of college professors acknowledge having difficulty telling left from right -- occasionally, frequently or always.
Here's what I have always suspected: Right/left confusion is more common among left-handers, like me; more common among us women; and often accompanied by weak map-reading skills and a wobbly sense of geography. (East of Wisconsin Avenue? North of the Mall? Wait. Does the Mall run north and south?)
In poking around through obscure psychology journals, university publications and online chat rooms, here's what I've learned: Some of my theories may be true, or seem to be true, but there has been precious little definitive research on this topic.
The good news: There's no reason to think left/right confusion is related to IQ. The not-so-good news: It may be related to bad handwriting, difficulties with math, dyslexia and schizophrenia. But hey . . .
After years of marriage, my husband still can't quite believe this perceptual glitch is real. He insists that right/left is the same as up/down, it's just lying on its side. No way, I say, and I have found fine researchers to back me up.
A 1979 North Dakota study, "Why Is Telling Right From Left More Difficult Than Telling Above From Below?," starts off unequivocally: "Adults take longer to judge the locations of horizontal stimuli than to judge the locations of vertical stimuli." It cites earlier studies showing that people in speed tests made more mistakes when drawing a line to the left or right of another line than drawing a line above or below. Further experiments showed that people took longer to label objects as being to the left or right than above and below, suggesting the confusion may lie in labeling more than knowing.
Neuroscience for Kids is a Web site created by Chudler eight years ago "for anyone interested in how the brain works." The site includes brainteasers, including one that records how fast you can tell whether pictures of hands are pointing up/down vs. left/right. Chudler says 95 percent of the 3,719 people who tried his test reported more difficulty with left/right than with up/down.
To try for yourself, visit http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/experi.html, and scroll down to the topic headlined "Sidedness."
Want to run your own experiment? Next time you're in a group, ask people to raise their right hand and watch for the hesitators.
Scientists who have looked can find no clear link between left/right confusion and left-handedness (or right-handedness). As for a link to sex, studies at Michigan State and Auburn University found that women were more likely than men to say they had some degree of right/left confusion. This tends to support earlier work at the University of Gottingen in Germany, which found females were more likely than males to say they had trouble with the distinction even if tests showed they did not. In other words, it seems that women are simply more likely than men to admit a weakness. Go figure.
Researchers say children are generally able to identify their own left and right reliably by age 6 or 7. They can identify other people's left and right by age 8, though the ability to assign right/left labels consistently may not come until later. The North Dakota researchers theorized that the confusion may arise in early childhood education, when so much instruction, at home or in class, takes place face to face. Imagine the scene: The well-meaning teacher says "Raise your right hand!" and raises her own -- on the children's left. No wonder a few poor kids are bewildered.
I have discovered no support groups for this condition but did run across a boisterous conversation on the subject at the blog site http://www.metafilter.com. There was input from men and women, including one woman who said "it's trial and error" every time she turns on a water faucet, and a guy who says he's clear which is which unless he looks in a mirror. So, would anyone out there like to start an online left/right discussion group? We can call it: Left On!
Everyone in favor, raise your right hand!
Belle Elving is the former editor of The Post's Home section. Comments:firstname.lastname@example.org.