Why Some People Can't Tell Left From Right

It can seem like an almost childish mistake, but a surprising number of adults confuse left from right, and now scientists are beginning to understand why. While for some people telling right from left is as easy as telling up from down, some people — around 1 in 6 — struggle with the distinction. That may not seem like a big deal, but imagine if you’re a surgeon getting ready to operate on someone’s arm. Knowing right from left becomes crucial. Left-right discrimination is a complex neuro-psychological process involving several higher neurological functions such as the ability to integrate sensory and visual information, language function and memory. Those who have difficulty in telling right from left often develop their own techniques — for example, placing their left thumb at right angles to their index finger to make an “L” representation for their “left” side, or looking to a tattoo as a guide. Incorporating safety systems when making critical left-right decisions can help reduce wrong-sided errors. For instance, a surgical team might take a time-out before an operation to run though a checklist to ensure that surgery is carried out on the correct side of the patient. Many hospitals today have a policy of requiring surgeons to use a marker to indicate which limb is to receive surgery. Some people who have difficulty distinguishing left from right feel stigmatized and may want to conceal their struggles. Being comfortable saying that you have difficulty with this and gaining support from those around you could make all the difference.