Review of A Left-Hand Turn Around the World: Chasing the Mystery and Meaning of All Things Southpaw

by David Wolman

(Da Capo, $23.95, 236 pages, November 2005)

A Science Shelf Guest Review by Barbara Krueger, published with permission of the author

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Exhibiting the superiority complex notably common to lefties, David Wolman pursues the myth, custom, fact, civil psychosis, mystery, and science relating to being left-handed in A Left-Hand Turn Around the World: Chasing the Mystery of All Things Southpaw.

The book is a travelogue of his "lefterly" journey around the world to grasp how the predominant use of one's left-hand is regarded in different societies, how it is treated as special by southpaws themselves, what the dubiously scientific world of palm reading and hand-writing analysis, and research studies of brain asymmetry has to contribute to understanding its uniqueness.

Wolman's travels took him to extended encounters with palm readers, handwriting experts, and left-handed golfers in Japan. Visits to other locations expose us to the asymmetry of the human brain, the relation of left-brain centers and right-body-side functions, and the role handedness plays in different sports.

Delving into the etymology of "left," sinister, clumsy, and defective, Wolman lays the groundwork for the voyage. Still, the book's two different purposes, travelogue and scientific journey, do not always mesh well. Wolman's selection of trivia and events from his travels make interesting reading for travel buffs, but those looking to discover southpaw science might view his accounts of where he stayed and what he ate as coming from out of left field.

Those readers will skim over the tourism and focus on scientific discoveries, including that left- and right-handedness appears to be unique to humans as a species, and that research has yet to uncover the evolutionary mechanism for it. Other topics include studies of brain asymmetry --the right side houses language and speech and each side controls motor skills of the opposite hand.

Particularly intriguing is the work of University of Toledo psychology professor Stephen Christman, who correlated the degree of handedness to the size of the corpus callosum, the structure connecting the brain's two hemispheres. A small corpus callosum favors more independent use of each hand, hence strong handedness.

Greater communication within the individual hemispheres comes at the price of less communication between them. Wolman cites the example of a drummer who can keep one beat with his right hand and a different one with his left.

Wolman discusses why scientists no longer think there is a gene for left-handedness. Instead, a gene or genes control the asymmetry of the brain and the make-up of the corpus callosum.

The hand we eat and write with is the one that earns us the label. Why not define handedness by the hand that holds the bagel steady and manages not to get in the way of the knife, or the gloved hand with which the ball player makes the catch? Wolman explains that the definition of righty or lefty is societal, not scientific. But in a world that assigns negative connotations to southpaws, it's obvious why people with a weak handedness prefer to be righty.

Will the book be equally good reading to right-handers as left-handers? If one has an interest in science, the occult or trivia, yes. If not, than perhaps 12% of the population will enjoy A Left-Hand Turn Around The World more than the rest.

Barbara Krueger is the daughter and mother of proud southpaws and an expert in resources available to senior citizens.

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