handedness

handedness, habitual or more skillful use of one hand as opposed to the other. Approximately 90% of humans are thought to be right-handed. It was traditionally argued that there is a slight tendency toward asymmetrical physiological development favoring the right side of the body, and that the center of gravity is to the right of the body's midline. This, however, would seem to be the consequence of greater dependence upon the right hand rather than the cause of right-handedness.

The neurological argument holds that since the right and left sides of the body are controlled by the opposite hemispheres of the brain, the greater development of the left hemisphere results in right-handedness. Anatomical studies have demonstrated that Broca's center, the area of the cerebral cortex that controls speech and muscular coordination, is almost always better developed in the left hemisphere in right-handed individuals; in 70% of left-handed individuals these centers are located in the right brain. Psychologists have raised the possibility of a cultural explanation. Although young children can be trained to prefer the right hand against a natural inclination, there is evidence that handedness is hereditary and that denser neurological connections extending from one side of the brain or the other are present from birth. A cultural explanation is also challenged by the evidence that some other vertebrates demonstrate a preference for one hand or paw over the other.

Although it is not clear that culture is a causative agent in handedness, it is certain that the high incidence of right-handedness has shaped human society in almost every conceivable aspect. Tools, machinery, and even clothing are largely designed for the right-handed, and until fairly recently, many left-handed individuals were strongly encouraged to switch to right-handedness. In some cultures the left-handed were thought to be evil or to bring bad luck.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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