Handling the President’s Brain (and yours)

Handling the President’s Brain (and yours)

Ouch. I broke a small (but apparently essential) bone in my right wrist over two week ago, while being a good citizen (don’t ask). I didn’t want to put any pressure on our ‘in crisis’ UK Accident and Emergency departments, so I self diagnosed it as a sprain and treated it with ice and compression. I was of course a complete idiot. I had an X-ray of my wrist today and yes, a scaphoid fracture was diagnosed. On the bright side,two week of pain and swelling forced me to use my non-dominant (left) hand and I started to think about the effect of neuroplasticity on handedness, my brain and the brain of the President of the USA.

Let me explain why. The percentage of the world wide population whom are left-handed is about 10%; this figure seems to be consistent across all countries. Left-handedness is somewhat more common among men than among women. While we may think the terms left and right are used to define handedness, there are actually four distinct types:

  • left-handedness,
  • right-handedness,
  • mixed-handedness, and
  • ambidexterity.

There is a fantastic statistic I came across, that 7 of the last 12 Presidents of the US have been left handed, which appears statistically significant (although 2 were ambidextrous). Amar Klar, a scientist who has worked on handedness, says that left-handed people have a wider scope of thinking and points to the disproportionately high number of Nobel Prize winners, writers and painters whom are left-handed. Michael Peters, a neuropsychologist at the University of Guelph, points out that left-handed people have to get by in a world adapted to right-handers, something which can give them extra mental resilience. [See the end of this post for details of the International Left Handed day].

Ziggy played guitar, jammin’ good with Weird and Gilly; and the Spiders from Mars, he played it left hand…’

Famously Jimi Hendrix was naturally left-handed but his father, Al, initially tried to force the young James to play right-handed. He believed playing left handed was a sign of the devil. Hendrix took right-handed guitars and restrung them for playing left-handed. Hendrix did continue to write right-handed. Other great left handed guitarists include Tony Iommi, Kurt Cobain, Paul McCartney and many more. But it wasn’t always easy for some of them…Blues legend Albert King was not only left-handed, he was an upside-down player. King played right-handed guitars (usually Gibson Flying Vs) simply flipped over, so the low E string was nearest his feet. He also used unorthodox tunings, as low as C to allow him to make sweeping string bend.

In many European languages, including our very special English language, the word for the direction ‘right’ also means ‘correct’ or ‘proper’. Throughout history, being left-handed was considered negative. The Latin adjective sinister means left as well as unlucky. There are many negative connotations associated with the phrase left-handed: clumsy, awkward, unlucky, insincere, sinister, malicious, and so on. In French, gauche means both left and awkward or clumsy, while droit(e) means both right, as well as law and the legal sense of right.

Though no one knows exactly what makes someone left or right handed, it is tempting to say it is genetic. New research the challenges this belief: the University of Nottingham’s Prof. John Armour and Dr. Angus Davison, and University College of London’s Prof. Chris McManus, have ruled out a strong genetic determinant in influencing handedness. William Brandler, of Oxford University’s MRC Functional Genomics Unit and first author of the earlier study that found a genetic association, warned previously that their results did not completely explain the variation of left- and right-handedness within the human population. As with all aspects of human behaviour, nature and nurture go hand-in-hand. The development of handedness derives from a mixture of genes, environment, and like Hendrix’s father, a cultural pressure to conform to right-handedness.

Ok, so now I am officially down to one functioning non-dominant left hand. Could I become the next Jimi Hendrix? Or maybe the next US President (I can’t, as I was born in the UK). How can my brain help me be better, faster and quicker? Let’s go back to my earlier blog about the brain and acknowledge it’s fantastic plasticity and it’s ability to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even in my old age (jump in here and say ‘but, you are not old Tim’) my clever brain can grow new neurones. Severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words you better use it or lose it.

So can my super impressive brain change to cope with my hand disaster? Generally our brain is a brilliant thinking organ that learns and grows by interacting with the world through perception and action. Mental stimulation absolutely improves brain function and protects against cognitive decline, as does physical exercise.

You may be surprised to learn that there are benefits to you when using your opposite hand. It feels awkward and you are likely to have much less control over what your non-dominant hand can do, but when you use your opposite hand you are growing your brain. I am using my right wrist injury as a chance to permanently grow my brain. I made an intention to start using my left hand for as many tasks that were previously always done with my right. It is time to grown my brain.

The human brain is an smart organ that improves through mental stimulation and challenge. In fact by using your non-dominant, or opposite hand, it confuses your brain. Which is a good thing. Using your opposite hand will strengthen existing neural connections and pathways in your brain and even develop more efficient pathways and connections. It’s similar to how physical exercise improves your body’s functioning and grows muscles (you may remember my blot on Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor). Some therapists have used an exercise where they ask their patients to write with their opposite hands, and it allows people to access some suppressed emotions. The brain is in charge of keeping you functioning and it does that with predictability. It needs some stress and a challenge to get stronger.

Neurobics™ is a unique system of brain exercises using your five physical senses and your emotional sense in unexpected ways that encourage you to shake up your everyday routines. They are designed to help your brain manufacture its own nutrients that strengthen, preserve, and grow brain cells. Created by Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, neurobics can be done anywhere, anytime, in offbeat, fun and easy ways. So why not give it a go and begin to grow your brain and make faster and quicker. Start with:

  • Try using your non-dominant hand to write. It’s tough at first but keep going.
  • Use your non-dominant hand to control the computer mouse or television remote control.
  • Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand.

You’ll probably notice it’s much harder to be precise with your movements. When I first started to brush my teeth with my left hand, it was hard to actually move my hand instead of my head. Using your left hand might remind you how you felt when you were first learning to write your name, or tie your shoelaces. You will probably feel awkward, but this just means you are teaching your brain a new skill.

Maybe you will become a future President, a Proteo-Hendrix or both. Maybe you will just grow an amazing neural network.

My advice: Be Amazing Every Day but don’t bother breaking your wrist to do it.

International Left-Handers Day is held annually every August 13th. It was founded by the Left-Handers Club in 1992, with the club itself having been founded in 1990. International Left-Handers Day is, according to the club, “an annual event when left-handers everywhere can celebrate their sinistrality [meaning left-handedness] and increase public awareness of the advantages and disadvantages of being left-handed.” Sponsored by Team America.