Giving your right arm to be ambidextrous

Apologies for yet another excessively long post, but I would like to ask, Would you give your right arm to be ambidextrous?

It is often thought that the left hemisphere of the brain is the logical/analytical side of the brain and that the right hemisphere is the creative/intuitive side of the brain. However, to what extent is this true? Most people are right handed, which in most cases means that the left hemisphere of their brain controls speech. Sometimes, however, the brain is symmetrical and both hemispheres contribute equally to functions like speech. Cerebral symmetry is thought to contribute to disorders like stuttering. Cerebral asymmetry, on the other hand, seems to be an important part of brain function. Laterality is also key to understanding the effects of a stroke in the brain, or a brain lesion due to an accident, or knowing which parts of the brain can be safely removed in a patient with epilepsy.

While having an asymmetrical brain does actually have some advantages, some psychologists suggest mixing it up. It may improve brain function. If you brush your teeth with your right hand, try brushing with your left; If you open doors with your left hand, try opening them with your right; If you… okay, okay, I think you get the point. I’m not sure how much this actually improves brain function, but I could possibly see how this behaviour might help you should you ever have an accident affecting one side of your body or one side of your brain. It may even help reduce neuro-degeneration in old age, but who knows…


An interesting thing about my fieldwork in Indonesia is the extent to which the right hand is favoured in society. It is rude to offer objects with the left hand, it is also rude to accept them in the left. Pointing, waving and gesturing with the left hand can all be considered extremely rude. Even if you are forced to use your left hand because you are eating with your right, working with it or holding onto something, you still have to indicate that you understand the rudeness of using your left. By acknowledging that you would prefer to use your right hand while forced to use your left, you are considered quite polite.

The right hand is considered the clean hand across most, if not all, Indonesian cultures. In a country where toilet paper is scarce, people use a bucket of water and their left hand. In fact toilet paper is considered less clean than good old fashioned hand wiping! Also, it is claimed that toilet paper clogs up the drains, but this is only true if you don’t use enough water to wash down the… okay, I won’t go into details.

Knowing what there is to know about the use of the right hand and the use of the left hand in Indonesia, I started making fieldwork observations to correlate practice with theory. The chef at my favourite market stall in West Sumatera, for example, only ever used his right hand to cook the extra yummy Martabak Manis dengan pisang dan coklat! This chef, to whom I had initially been drawn to because of his incredible Elvis Presley hair and James Brown looks, performed a highly intricate juggling act to cook solely with his right hand while keeping his left hand by his side for the entire time. Not an easy task by all means! Having noticed this chef’s strict attention to hygiene, I was surprised a little to see him accept Rupiah notes with his right hand and not his left. In this instance, he was clearly choosing cultural etiquette over hygiene. But maybe my surprise is because I am a little more aware of the bacteria found on coins and notes. I don’t think New Scientist has been translated into Indonesian yet. Regardless, I am also a little surprised in my own country when I see fast-food servers who prepare sandwiches/burgers/kebabs wearing plastic gloves but then accept your money in the same glove-wearing hands. In that instance it is probably just a reflection of laziness or a simple oversight. Not all servers do this. Just as not all West Sumateran chefs are as coordinated as my favourite Martabak chef.

It was always interesting for me to see the inventive ways Indonesians often made visible efforts, (some awkward, some coordinated), to compensate for not being able to use their left hand in certain tasks or gestures. But to what extent was the left hand actually used for dirty tasks and the right for clean tasks? I sometimes saw mothers cleaning their baby’s bottom with their right hand, I often noted men cleaning dirty objects with their right hand, and not all chefs used only their right hand in cooking–a lot of them used both hands for practicality. Short of following people into the toilets, I noticed there was a large difference between cultural theory and social practice. But that was not surprising for my fieldwork. I also noted large differences between the way people talked about tradition and how people actually lived their lives. I’m sure such discrepancies arise in my own culture and most definately in my own behaviour as well. So I return to my question, to what extent do people use the right hand for clean tasks and the left for dirty tasks?


A tentative answer came through the most unlikely of channels. A pilot study if you will. As it happened, one day I found myself giving a palm reading to a friend. Now, it’s not something I usually like to admit in academic circles, but yes sometimes I like to whip out the generic comments, open-ended statements and show people how the shape, lines and folds of their hand are spoken about in cheirology without ever actually drawing any conclusions about the people themselves. And the strangest thing about it, people seem to love it! I never actually tell someone they will have four kids, win the lottery and fly to Guatemala, but somehow these generic comments about perception, archetypes and life seems to open people up to themselves and somehow they lead themselves to insights about themselves that make themselves happy. I guess if it makes them happier then that’s all that’s important. But before I wander too far from my topic, I shall return. After reading the palm of one person, the word spread quick. Over the next couple of months I found myself stopped in the street, cornered at the markets and detained in classrooms to read the palms of hundreds of people! It was a nightmare of exhaustion! However, I did find that it was a great way to find out more about people (not that I am advocating cheiromancy as a tool for ethnography). You see, people actually reveal a lot more about themselves in a Palm reading than the palm reader reveals to them. In regards to the current topic, I found that palm reading allowed me to see which hand was dirtier.

Now, I didn’t get into palm reading as a deceptive tool to check out people’s hands, but I did discover that quite often people would present me with a palm that had visibly not been cleaned properly (not surprising given that soap is not always readily available). To my personal shock, however, I found that sometimes the dirty/dirtier hand was the right hand. Now I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that once you have seen three or four right hands that clearly contradict the central premise of a cultural etiquette, you begin to question the validity of the statements of informants. Now, I’m sure there is an interesting study there to see the tension between biological influences on laterality and sociocultural pressures on handedness. It would also be interesting to look at the sensoric and motoric representation of the left and right hand in the brains of Indonesian people as opposed to the brains of people in a society without this strict right-hand-using social code. But for a pilot ethnography, we can already start making inferences about how social pressures to use the right hand in certain ways in certain contexts already leads to a unique set of skills and automatic behaviours.

And, Yes, Greg, it seems that I have managed to invent yet another neologism: Ethnocheirology

Left or Right Brain    
Right Brain, Left Brain   
Left Brain, Right Brain   
Left Brain, Right Brain, Fact or Fiction
Catalyst, Left Brain Right Brain
Roger W. Sperry

Scientific Investigations of the hand

6 thoughts on “Giving your right arm to be ambidextrous

  1. Pingback: Four Stone Hearth - Layman Edition | Tangled Up in Blue Guy

  2. Good article. I would like to question how left hand dominant people adjust to the socialisation of only using their right hand? Is it something akin to our own culture in ages past where left handed individuals were caned for not writing with their right hand because using their left hand smudged the fresh ink of their writing? I wonder about the social implications of hand usuage in physical confrontation. If you strike another individual with a left hand, is that seen as a greater insult than striking someone with the stronger right hand?

  3. While I feel that I cannot answer your questions directly because studying laterality was not the primary purpose of my fieldwork, I do have a couple of interesting stories that partially respond to your queries.

    1. Most left-handers I met did not indicate difficulties at school, but I do remember meeting an older gentleman who was left-hand-dominant but wrote with his right hand – he alluded to his schooling influences, but I did not think to pursue the issue with further questions at that point and unfortunately never met the gentleman again.

    A particularly interesting case I encountered was a gentleman who, although having a disfigured right hand, persisted in using his right hand for manual tasks (including writing) when his left would have been physically more capable. Again, I failed to pursue the peripheral research interest by asking this gentlemen if he felt social pressures to use his right hand or if he had simply never bothered to train his left. The gentleman did describe phantom-limb pain though and he was very relieved that I was able to explain to him what that was (to the extent that we can describe what phantom-limb pain is)…

    2. In terms of hitting someone else, I never witnessed anyone hit another person in anger during my stay in Indonesia, (I found them to be very friendly people, many of whom express great pride in practicing patience during situations of adversity). I did, however, practice a martial art called Pencak Silat. It always fascinated me that a lot of the ‘traditional’ schools of Pencak Silat taught techniques that were almost entirely right handed. At the very least, techniques were usually initiated with a right hand or right leg attack. I did ask a lot of questions about this practice to many of my teachers. In my experience of all other martial arts, I have always found it very rare to practice one side of the body exclusively (all except perhaps medieval re-enactment).

    One of my teachers said that the practice of training only the right hand side of the body was reminiscent of the fact that Pencak Silat was originally used to train soldiers.

    Another of my teachers claimed that he encourages his qualified students to train both sides of their body. He said that teaching people the techniques on the right hand side of the body was easier and more efficient. “Once they had learnt it on the right”, he said, “then they could go home and teach themselves how to do it on the left.”

    Another teacher actually discouraged me from practicing techniques on my left suggesting that it was aesthetically displeasing. I was unable to find a line of questioning that uncovered a reason why. I wish my Indonesian was better because then I would have been able to exclude the possibility that it was not my Indonesian which hampered my attempts to obtain an explanation. I suspect that the aesthetics of using the right hand WERE more pleasing to him but that it was the first time that he had consciously thought about this and been requested to verbalise his reasons.

    A number of informants claimed that it was just the way things were done.

    Only one of my Indonesian teachers taught me techniques on both sides of the body, but this teacher did not have a good reputation with his peers and the majority of his students were foreigners.

    One practitioner, though not local, suggested that Pencak Silat is about learning the quickest and easiest way to fight. His firm belief was that the quickest and easiest way to learn how to fight is to use the more skilled side of your body.

    Concerning practices of Pencak Silat in Indonesia i must rely on the opinions and beliefs of my informants as well as my own observations and experiences. On a personal note, however, I am convinced of the greater complexity and thus robustness achieved by ambidexterity. The ART of a martial art is the ability to be able to adapt to all situations. Hence, I train on both sides of my body.

  4. Paul this is a very intresting subject your are adressing here ,the thing that’s confusing on my side as a south african who also lived in indonesia though is indonesians are a peolpe who are strongly rooted in the religion of islam ,so there’s a very big influence in their day to day lifestyles and what i want to know though is how do you differeciate if something is religously or cultural inclined especially when it comes to the giving using the right hand or the left hand and a whole host of other related confusing habits. thanks

  5. Pingback: Months of the Year: Neuroanthropology 2008 « Neuroanthropology

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