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News You Can Use
By David Bachelor, PhD
We live in very polarized times, and researchers have spent considerable time and energy studying the duality of our existence. Some of this research ended up in this week’s headlines. The results prove how difficult it is to be “evenhanded.” This is because of a condition called “left-right confusion.”
Making the case for a nascent bias in every human being, the January 6th press release from Massachusetts General Hospital was titled, “Telling Left from Right: Cilia as Cellular Force Sensors During Embryogenesis.” This article explored how the asymmetrical aspect of the body’s internal organs is determined while an individual is just an embryo. Scientists already were aware that the cluster of cells (called “the left-right organizer”) controls how an individual’s organs break the body’s line of symmetry. This article explained how the left-right organizer communicates its bias to the baby’s developing organs through the microscopic hair-like structures (cilia) on the outside of each cell. Doctors are interested in this process because there are birth defects that result when a baby’s internal organs lack a bias to the left or to the right.
The culture and science newsletter Inverse carried an article on January 15th titled, “Is Your Dog Right or Left-Pawed? One Factor Could Determine Their Dominant Hand.” Dispelling the assumption that “’handedness’ was unique to humans,” several studies propose that ““handedness” may be a fundamental feature of all mammals.” These studies also noted that gender plays a major part in handedness, “[F]emale dogs are more likely to be right-pawed, while males are more inclined to be left-pawed. This difference has been unearthed in other non-human species, including the domestic cat.”
On January 12th the Future section of BBC World News had the headline, “Why Some People Can’t Tell Left from Right.” Usually this condition is harmless, the exception is when the laterally-challenged person is your doctor. The article retells several incidents when surgeons removed healthy organs because of left-right confusion. According to a recent study, almost one in six people are challenged to tell right from left. Researchers believe, “Left-right discrimination is actually quite a complex process, calling upon memory, language, visual and spatial processing, and mental rotation.” Many people rely on mental tricks to distinguish right from left: “These various techniques [range] from making an L shape with their thumb and index finger, to thinking about which hand they use to write, or strum a guitar. For some people it’s a tattoo on their body or a piercing.”
Left-right confusion is not a new phenomenon. The prophet Jonah came up against this situation when God sent him to Nineveh. If modern researchers are correct (that one in six people cannot distinguish left and right), the ancient city of Nineveh must have been huge. God asked Jonah, “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?” (Jonah 4:11). This puts Nineveh’s population at three quarters of a million people. That is a lot of people telling God how sorry they are (Jonah 3:8-9). No wonder God showed them mercy.
Jesus encouraged a type of left-right confusion. He told his disciples, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt 6:3). This kind of confusion and bias never causes harm.