For some people indicating a direction is a challenge. The sense of direction is definitely not their strong point and find automatically difficult also distinguish between left and right. They are the classic persons that, when given an indication and try to follow it, must always be told: “Not this right, the other right”.
If it happens to you too, you have to know that you are not alone. It is estimated that 20% of the world population has difficulties orienting themselves in space and distinguishing right from left. It is also known that this problem is more common among left-handed, women and people with a high IQ.
Learning to distinguish left from right is more complex than it seems
During growth, the sense of direction right/left passes through two different phases. First, there is an intrapersonal process, that is, we learn to distinguish between right and left within our body image. Later we leave this “selfish” approach and enter into a supra-personal process that will allow us to discriminate both sides from the point of view of another person or in front of the mirror.
The intrapersonal stage occurs around the age of 5, and is associated with learning to read and write. In fact, at this age it is common that children reverse the spelling of letters and numbers. Interpersonal phase develops around age 9, but it is estimated that around 11 years of age, only 50% of children acquired this skill.
Actually, this is not a simple learning, because involves different cognitive functions, from memory to the ability to process and integrate visual information as well as spatial awareness. To this we add that it is a coordinate system that changees, since the left and right vary according to the reference point.
A matter of brain symmetry and spatial intelligence
There are several diseases, such as spatial agnosia, causing difficulty in orientation and are caused by brain damage. Therefore, neuroscientists believe that the explanation to this problem may lie in the brain.
In fact, it is believed that the ability to distinguish right from left depends primarily from the left hemisphere, and in particularly from the parietal lobe. But there is a theory that connects the difficulty in distinguishing between right and left with brain symmetry. Most people have a little cerebral asymmetry, which means that one hemisphere is slightly larger than the other and has a dominant role in the functions and activities that are carried out.
Interestingly, the higher the symmetry of the two hemispheres, the more difficult for the person is to discern right from left. This theory would explain why women tend to confuse both parts, since they usually have a higher brain symmetry than men. It is estimated that 8.8% of men often confuse between right and left, while the percentage rises to 17.5% for women.
Fortunately, this is not a problem, it just means that person has not sufficiently developed its spatial intelligence, the ability to orient himself in space. In fact, each person is unique, made according to a “special formula” in which intelligences are mixed in varying degrees. So who has difficulties to orient himself in space, usually shows a brilliant intelligence in other areas of life.
What role has concentration?
The truth is that even people who have automated this ability can still not be able to distinguish left from right. In this regard, researchers from the Royal Victoria Hospital carried out a study with 234 medical students and found that when they were distracted, it was difficult for them to distinguish left from right and increased significantly the chances that they commit errors in their work.
Obviously, this is not good news for patients, especially if we consider that people who work in hospitals are often subjected to great stress. In fact, statistics indicate that one in every 112,994 surgical procedures are performed on the wrong side of the patient, resulting in the removal of healthy organs. In medicine this phenomenon is known as “wrong site surgery ”.
Is there a solution?
Most people who have this small problem often resort to different strategies to quickly remember what’s right and what’s left. Some just need to remember the hand with which they write, others remember where the heart is.
In any case, it should be clarified that this is not a deficiency but only a little difficulty. In fact, it is rather a problem of automation, since these people are able to recognize right and the left, but require more time than the rest of the people, because the basic process is not automated and, before deciding, they have to think.
McKinley, J. et. Al. (2015) ‘Sorry, I meant the patient’s left side’: impact of distraction on left–right discrimination. TOC; 49(4): 427–435.
Hirnstein, M. et. Al. (2009) Sex differences in left–right confusion depend on hemispheric asymmetry. Cortex; 45; 891–899.
Mulloy, D. F. et. Al. (2008) Wrong-Site Surgery: A Preventable Medical Error. Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurses. Rockville: Hughes RG.
Hausmann, M. et. Al. (1999) Sex differences in functional cerebral asymmetries in a repeated measures design. Brain and Cognition; 41: 263–275.
Hannay, H. J. et. Al. (1990) Self-report of right-left confusion in college men and women. Percept Mot Skills; 70(2): 451-257.