TEDx Salford IV: Festival of the Mind: A handedness meta-perspective

All of last Sunday’s TEDx Salford Festival of the Mind sessions (http://www.tedxsalford.com/) were thoroughly thought provoking. However, for those interested in the link between minds and hands there is another, greater-than-the sum-of the-parts, meta-perspective worth commenting on.

Up to the first break all the performers held a device in the right hand while engaging in ‘left hand’ talk.  During the break I was invited to join a father and his 12-14? year old son at a table in the coffee bar. I asked the father what brought him to the Festival of the Mind and he pointed to his son, saying “He did”. I then asked the son the same question to which he replied, “The science.” When I stupidly asked the son, “Which bit of science?” he said: “All of it!”

I then asked the father whether he had noticed anything about the hand gestures of the performers. He said they were all left handed. I asked him how he knew and he said because he too was left handed. So here were two independent non-participatory observers reaching the same conclusion. What was slightly surprising was that the father turned to the son and asked which ‘hand’ he was. The son said he was right handed, and when asked, based on what evidence he answered, because he wrote with his right hand. I simply said that was a circular argument because we know that many people have been often ‘unwittingly’ induced to write with their right.

Where this pattern of one holding hand and one ‘talking’ hand could be noted, the right holding and left ‘talking’ continued with the remaining performers until the final session of the day. (I’ll not speculate here on the handedness of the two pianists since the issues are slightly more complex.)

But before I describe what happened during the last performance by Zboralski it’s worth commenting on two other aspects of what can best be labelled, the hegemony of the right story, which contains a story within the story. The neighbour to my left, originally from war-torn Iraq had applauded vigorously all performers and hooped at many including 2011 Nobel peace  prize winner Tawakkol Karman: although he did think she was probably provoking further violence by her actions. Karman was also a prolific left hand talker until she referred to Allah, at which point she raised her right hand above her head, before reverting again to her left hand talk as she resumed her talk. The only performer my neighbour did not applaud was Sophia Wallace, whose very feminine topic, cliteracy, addressed the issue of citizenship and body sovereignty. The first story tells us that while ritual dictates that good Muslims hold the Qu’ran in the right hand, and therefore raise this hand when referring / pointing to Allah, the adept hand is genetically determined to be either left or right. The second story tells us that despite my male neighbour’s westernization, he appeared to hold to male stereotypical views about the role of women in society, even to the point of perhaps wishing that the topic of cliteracy was not voiced.

What we can say so far is that all performers had been consistent in the use of the hands. Until the last speaker, Zboralski,  the most thought provoking of all – at least for me. As he spoke he glanced from time to time to a hand-held device. As he continued he started to hesitate, stopped walking, looked intently at the hand-held device then picked up the thread and continued talking and walking. Eventually he apologized several times for the full stops: at one stage saying that the light was affecting how he could view his device. Penultimately,  metaphorically speaking, he threw the device away by placing it on the piano to the side of the stage. Finally the host walked onto the stage to ‘rescue’ him, at which point he received almost a standing ovation. Saying that he had a really important message to give he ‘over-rode’ the rescue to continue speaking but without his hand held prompter.

Anyone familiar with handedness work will know that Annett claimed many years ago that being consistent in the use of the hand, right or left, was not associated with problems: inconsistent hand use was! Here Zboralski provided first class evidence of the validity of her claim. But why should such an accomplished and talented individual be so different from all the previous speakers in hand his inconsistent hand use?

The question takes us directly to the fact that the left cerebral hemisphere ‘controls’ the right hand and the right hemisphere the left hand.  In two handed tasks, including giving oral presentations, one hand is the holding (feeling) hand and the other the pointing (or thinking) hand. In Zborlaski’s case this kept switching with increasing frequency; and was correlated with pauses and full stops. Now we know, from Voltaire, that speech is confused when the thinking it represents is confused. We also know, that some issues are intrinsically confusing and hold further confusions within them: but that it’s better to voice those confusion rather than avoid them (re-my neighbour and the Cliteracy performance)! Given that working at the key-board is a two handed activity and that Zboralski had become an expert at the keyboard ‘coding’ it is more likely than not that he is one of those rare bi-adept handers. The downside of which is that there is no simple brain hand / heart hand division of labour, being literally in two minds!

A minor issue is whether the performers consider themselves to be right or left handed, as far as writing goes. (There’s a photo of Zboralski with a pen in his right hand on his Belua website).  A major issue is that appearing to be left handed each performer will have had to learn how to handle the hegemony of the right / wright / rite / write. Thanks to all the performers (and host) for so admirably demonstrating this by their acknowledged achievements.

About petermathews

Member of the Royal Society of Medicine
This entry was posted in Change agent, Cognition, Hands, Innovation, TED, scientific and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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