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The term laterality refers to the preference most humans show for one side of their body over the other. Examples include left-handedness/right-handedness and left/right-footedness; it may also refer to the primary use of the left or right hemisphere in the brain. It may also apply to animals or plants. The majority of tests have been conducted on humans, specifically to determine the effects on language.



The majority of humans are right-handed. Many are also right-sided in general (that is, they prefer to use their right eye, right foot and right ear if forced to make a choice between the two). The reasons for this are not fully understood, but it is thought that because the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body, the right side is generally stronger; it is suggested that the left cerebral hemisphere is dominant over the right in most humans because in 90-92% of all humans, the left hemisphere is the language hemisphere.

Human cultures are predominantly right-handed, and so the right-sided trend may be socially as well as biologically enforced. This is quite apparent from a quick survey of languages. The English word "left" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lyft which means "weak" or "useless". Similarly, the French word for left, gauche, is also used to mean "awkward" or "tactless", and sinistra, the Latin word from which the English word "sinister" was derived, means "left". Similarly, in many cultures the word for "right" also means "correct". The English word "right" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word riht which also means "straight" or "correct."

This linguistic and social bias is not restricted to European cultures: for example, Chinese characters are designed for right-handers to write, and no significant left-handed culture has ever been found in the world.

When a person is forced to use the hand opposite of the hand that they would naturally use, this is known as forced laterality, or more specifically forced dextrality. A study done by the Department of Neurology at Keele University, North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary suggests that forced dextrality may be part of the reason that the percentage of left-handed people decreases with the higher age groups, both because the effects of pressures toward right-handedness are cumulative over time (hence increasing with age for any given person subjected to them) and because the prevalence of such pressure is decreasing, such that fewer members of younger generations face any such pressure to begin with. [1]

Ambidexterity is when a person has approximately equal skill with both hands and/or both sides of the body. True ambidexterity is very rare. Although a small number of people can write competently with both hands and use both sides of their body well, even these people usually show preference for one side of their body over the other. However, this preference is not necessarily consistent for all activities. Some people may for example use their right hand for writing, and their left hand for playing racket sports and eating [2] (see also: cross-dominance).

Also, it is not uncommon that people preferring to use the right hand prefer to use the left leg, e.g. when using a shovel, kicking a ball, or operating control pedals. In many cases, this may be because they are disposed for left-handedness but have been trained for right-handedness, which is usually attached to learning and behavioural disorders (term usually so called as "cross dominance"). [3] In the sport of cricket, some players may find that they are more comfortable bowling with their left or right hand, but batting with the other hand.

Approximate statistics are below: [4]

Laterality of motor and sensory control has been the subject of a recent intense study and review. [5] It turns out that the hemisphere of speech is the hemisphere of action in general and that the command hemisphere is located either in the right or the left hemisphere (never in both). Around eighty percent of people are left hemispheric for speech and the remainder are right hemispheric: ninety percent of right-handers are left hemispheric for speech, but only fifty percent of left-handers are right hemispheric for speech (the remainder are left hemispheric). The reaction time of the neurally dominant side of the body (the side opposite to the major hemisphere or the command center, as just defined) is shorter than that of the opposite side by an interval equal to the interhemispheric transfer time. Thus, one in five persons has a handedness that is the opposite for which they are wired (per laterality of command center or brainedness, as determined by reaction time study mentioned above).

Different expressions


Cerebral dominance or specialization has been studied in relation to a variety of human functions. With speech in particular, many studies have been used as evidence that it is generally localized in the left hemisphere. Research comparing the effects of lesions in the two hemispheres, split-brain patients, and perceptual asymmetries have aided in the knowledge of speech lateralization. In one particular study, the left hemisphere's sensitivity to differences in rapidly changing sound cues was noted (Annett, 1991). This has real world implication, since very fine acoustic discriminations are needed to comprehend and produce speech signals. In an electrical stimulation demonstration performed by Ojemann and Mateer (1979), the exposed cortex was mapped revealing the same cortical sites were activated in phoneme discrimination and mouth movement sequences (Annett, 1991).

As suggested by Kimura (1975, 1982), left hemisphere speech lateralization might be based upon a preference for movement sequences as demonstrated by American Sign Language (ASL) studies. Since ASL requires intricate hand movements for language communication, it was proposed that skilled hand motions and speech require sequences of action over time. In deaf patients suffering from a left hemispheric stroke and damage, noticeable losses in their abilities to sign were noted. These cases were compared to studies of normal speakers with dysphasias located at lesioned areas similar to the deaf patients. In the same study, deaf patients with right hemispheric lesions did not display any significant loss of signing nor any decreased capacity for motor sequencing (Annett, 1991).

One theory, known as the acoustic laterality theory, the physical properties of certain speech sounds are what determine laterality to the left hemisphere. Stop consonants, for example t, p, or k, leave a defined silent period at the end of words that can easily be distinguished. This theory postulates that changing sounds such as these are preferentially processed by the left hemisphere. As a result of the right ear being responsible for transmission to sounds to the left hemisphere, it is capable of perceiving these sounds with rapid changes. This right ear advantage in hearing and speech laterality was evidenced in dichotic listening studies. Magnetic imaging results from this study showed greater left hemisphere activation when actual words were presented as opposed to pseudo-words (Shtyrov, Pihko, and Pulvermuller, 2005). Two important aspects of speech recognition are phonetic cues, such as format patterning, and prosody cues, such as intonation, accent, and emotional state of the speaker (Imaizumi, Koichi, Kiritani, Hosoi & Tonoike, 1998).

In a study done with both monolinguals and bilinguals, which took into account language experience, second language proficiency, and onset of bilingualism among other variables, researchers were able to demonstrate left hemispheric dominance. In addition, bilinguals that began speaking a second language early in life demonstrated bilateral hemispheric involvement. The findings of this study were able to predict differing patterns of cerebral language lateralization in adulthood (Hull & Vaid, 2006).

In other animals

It has been shown that cerebral lateralization is a widespread phenomenon in the animal kingdom. [6] Functional and structural differences between left and right brain hemispheres can be found in many other vertebrates and also in invertebrates. [7]

It has been proposed that negative, withdrawal-associated emotions are processed predominantly by the right hemisphere, whereas the left hemisphere is largely responsible for processing positive, approach-related emotions. This has been called the "laterality-valence hypothesis". [8]

One sub-set of laterality in animals is limb dominance. Preferential limb use for specific tasks has been shown in species including chimpanzees, mice, bats, wallabies, parrots, chickens and toads. [7]

Another form of laterality is hemispheric dominance for processing conspecific vocalizations, reported for chimpanzees, sea lions, dogs, zebra finches and Bengalese finches. [7]

In mice

In mice (Mus musculus), laterality in paw usage has been shown to be a learned behavior (rather than inherited), [9] due to which, in any population, half of the mice become left-handed while the other half becomes right-handed. The learning occurs by a gradual reinforcement of randomly occurring weak asymmetries in paw choice early in training, even when training in an unbiased world. [10] [11] Meanwhile, reinforcement relies on short-term and long-term memory skills that are strain-dependent, [10] [11] causing strains to differ in the degree of laterality of its individuals. Long-term memory of previously gained laterality in handedness due to training is heavily diminished in mice with absent corpus callosum and reduced hippocampal commissure. [12] Regardless of the amount of past training and consequent biasing of paw choice, there is a degree of randomness in paw choice that is not removed by training, [13] which may provide adaptability to changing environments.

In other mammals

Domestic horses (Equus ferus caballus) exhibit laterality in at least two areas of neural organization, i.e. sensory and motor. In thoroughbreds, the strength of motor laterality increases with age. Horses under 4 years old have a preference to initially use the right nostril during olfaction. [14] Along with olfaction, French horses have an eye laterality when looking at novel objects. There is a correlation between their score on an emotional index and eye preference; horses with higher emotionality are more likely to look with their left eye. The less emotive French saddlebreds glance at novel objects using the right eye, however, this tendency is absent in the trotters, although the emotive index is the same for both breeds. [15] Racehorses exhibit laterality in stride patterns as well. They use their preferred stride pattern at all times whether racing or not, unless they are forced to change it while turning, injured, or fatigued. [16]

In domestic dogs (Canis familiaris), there is a correlation between motor laterality and noise sensitivity - a lack of paw preference is associated with noise-related fearfulness. (Branson and Rogers, 2006)[ citation needed ] Fearfulness is an undesirable trait in guide dogs, therefore, testing for laterality can be a useful predictor of a successful guide dog. Knowing a guide dog's laterality can also be useful for training because the dog may be better at walking to the left or the right of their blind owner. [17]

Domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) show an individual handedness when reaching for static food. In one study, 46% preferred to use the right paw, 44% the left, and 10% were ambi-lateral; 60% used one paw 100% of the time. There was no difference between male and female cats in the proportions of left and right paw preferences. In moving-target reaching tests, cats have a left-sided behavioural asymmetry. [18] One study indicates that laterality in this species is strongly related to temperament. Furthermore, individuals with stronger paw preferences are rated as more confident, affectionate, active, and friendly. [19]

Chimpanzees show right-handedness in certain conditions. This is expressed at the population level for females, but not males. The complexity of the task has a dominant effect on handedness in chimps. [20]

Cattle use visual/brain lateralisation in their visual scanning of novel and familiar stimuli. [21] Domestic cattle prefer to view novel stimuli with the left eye, (similar to horses, Australian magpies, chicks, toads and fish) but use the right eye for viewing familiar stimuli. [22]

Schreibers' long-fingered bat is lateralized at the population level and shows a left-hand bias for climbing or grasping. [23]

Some types of mastodon indicate laterality through the fossil remains having differing tusk lengths.[ citation needed ]

In marsupials

Marsupials are fundamentally different from other mammals in that they lack a corpus callosum. [24] However, wild kangaroos and other macropod marsupials have a left-hand preference for everyday tasks. Left-handedness is particularly apparent in the red kangaroo (Macropus rufus) and the eastern gray kangaroo (Macropus giganteus). The red-necked wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus) preferentially uses the left hand for behaviours that involve fine manipulation, but the right for behaviours that require more physical strength. There is less evidence for handedness in arboreal species. [25]

In birds

Parrots tend to favor one foot when grasping objects (for example fruit when feeding). Some studies indicate that most parrots are left footed. [26]

The Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) uses both left-eye and right-eye laterality when performing anti-predator responses, which include mobbing. Prior to withdrawing from a potential predator, Australian magpies view the animal with the left eye (85%), but prior to approaching, the right eye is used (72%). The left eye is used prior to jumping (73%) and prior to circling (65%) the predator, as well as during circling (58%) and for high alert inspection of the predator (72%). The researchers commented that "mobbing and perhaps circling are agonistic responses controlled by the LE[left eye]/right hemisphere, as also seen in other species. Alert inspection involves detailed examination of the predator and likely high levels of fear, known to be right hemisphere function." [27]

Yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis) chicks show laterality when reverting from a supine to prone posture, and also in pecking at a dummy parental bill to beg for food. Lateralization occurs at both the population and individual level in the reverting response and at the individual level in begging. Females have a leftward preference in the righting response, indicating this is sex dependent. Laterality in the begging response in chicks varies according to laying order and matches variation in egg androgens concentration. [28]

In fish

Laterality determines the organisation of rainbowfish (Melanotaenia spp.) schools. These fish demonstrate an individual eye preference when examining their reflection in a mirror. Fish which show a right-eye preference in the mirror test prefer to be on the left side of the school. Conversely, fish that show a left-eye preference in the mirror test or were non-lateralised, prefer to be slightly to the right side of the school. The behaviour depends on the species and sex of the school. [29]

In amphibians

Three species of toads, the common toad (Bufo bufo), green toad (Bufo viridis) and the cane toad (Bufo marinus) show stronger escape and defensive responses when a model predator was placed on the toad's left side compared to their right side. [30] Emei music frogs (Babina daunchina) have a right-ear preference for positive or neutral signals such as a conspecific's advertisement call and white noise, but a left-ear preference for negative signals such as predatory attack. [31]

In invertebrates

The Mediterranean fruit fly (Ceratitis capitata) exhibits left-biased population-level lateralisation of aggressive displays (boxing with forelegs and wing strikes) with no sex-differences. [32] In ants, Temnothorax albipennis (rock ant) scouts show behavioural lateralization when exploring unknown nest sites, showing a population-level bias to prefer left turns. One possible reason for this is that its environment is partly maze-like and consistently turning in one direction is a good way to search and exit mazes without getting lost. [33] This turning bias is correlated with slight asymmetries in the ants' compound eyes (differential ommatidia count). [34]

See also

Related Research Articles

Roger Wolcott Sperry

Roger Wolcott Sperry was an American neuropsychologist, neurobiologist and Nobel laureate who, together with David Hunter Hubel and Torsten Nils Wiesel, won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work with split-brain research. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Sperry as the 44th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.

In human biology, handedness is the faster or more precise performance or individual preference for use of a hand, known as the dominant hand. The incapable, less capable or less preferred hand is called the recessive hand. Right-handedness is most common; about 90% of people are right-handed. Handedness is often defined by one's writing hand, as it is fairly common for people to prefer to do some tasks with each hand. There are examples of true ambidexterity, but it is rare—most people prefer one hand for most purposes.

Corpus callosum White matter tract connecting the two cerebral hemispheres

The corpus callosum, also callosal commissure, is a wide, thick nerve tract, consisting of a flat bundle of commissural fibers, beneath the cerebral cortex in the brain. The corpus callosum is only found in placental mammals. It spans part of the longitudinal fissure, connecting the left and right cerebral hemispheres, enabling communication between them. It is the largest white matter structure in the human brain, about ten centimetres in length and consisting of 200–300 million axonal projections.

Cerebral hemisphere The left and right cerebral hemispheres of the brain

The vertebrate cerebrum (brain) is formed by two cerebral hemispheres that are separated by a groove, the longitudinal fissure. The brain can thus be described as being divided into left and right cerebral hemispheres. Each of these hemispheres has an outer layer of grey matter, the cerebral cortex, that is supported by an inner layer of white matter. In eutherian (placental) mammals, the hemispheres are linked by the corpus callosum, a very large bundle of nerve fibers. Smaller commissures, including the anterior commissure, the posterior commissure and the fornix, also join the hemispheres and these are also present in other vertebrates. These commissures transfer information between the two hemispheres to coordinate localized functions.

Parietal lobe

The parietal lobe is one of the four major lobes of the cerebral cortex in the brain of mammals. The parietal lobe is positioned above the temporal lobe and behind the frontal lobe and central sulcus.

Central sulcus

The central sulcus is a sulcus, or groove, in the cerebral cortex in the brains of vertebrates. Also called the central fissure, or the fissure of Rolando or the Rolandic fissure, after Luigi Rolando. It is sometimes confused with the longitudinal fissure.

Brodmann area 44

Brodmann area 44, or BA44, is part of the frontal cortex in the human brain. Situated just anterior to premotor cortex (BA6) and on the lateral surface, inferior to BA9.

Expressive language disorder is a communication disorder in which there are difficulties with verbal and written expression. It is a specific language impairment characterized by an ability to use expressive spoken language that is markedly below the appropriate level for the mental age, but with a language comprehension that is within normal limits. There can be problems with vocabulary, producing complex sentences, and remembering words, and there may or may not be abnormalities in articulation.

Ocular dominance, sometimes called eye preference or eyedness, is the tendency to prefer visual input from one eye to the other. It is somewhat analogous to the laterality of right- or left-handedness; however, the side of the dominant eye and the dominant hand do not always match. This is because both hemispheres control both eyes, but each one takes charge of a different half of the field of vision, and therefore a different half of both retinas. There is thus no direct analogy between "handedness" and "eyedness" as lateral phenomena.

Lateralization of brain function Specialization of some cognitive functions in one side of the brain

The lateralization of brain function is the tendency for some neural functions or cognitive processes to be specialized to one side of the brain or the other. The medial longitudinal fissure separates the human brain into two distinct cerebral hemispheres, connected by the corpus callosum. Although the macrostructure of the two hemispheres appears to be almost identical, different composition of neuronal networks allows for specialized function that is different in each hemisphere.

Unihemispheric slow-wave sleep

Unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS) is sleep where one half of the brain rests while the other half remains alert. This is in contrast to normal sleep where both eyes are shut and both halves of the brain show unconsciousness. In USWS, also known as asymmetric slow-wave sleep, one half of the brain is in deep sleep, a form of non-rapid eye movement sleep and the eye corresponding to this half is closed while the other eye remains open. When examined by low-voltage electroencephalography (EEG), the characteristic slow-wave sleep tracings are seen from one side while the other side shows a characteristic tracing of wakefulness. The phenomenon has been observed in a number of terrestrial, aquatic and avian species.

Brain asymmetry Term in human neuroanatomy referring to several things

In human neuroanatomy, brain asymmetry can refer to at least two quite distinct findings:

The Edinburgh Handedness Inventory is a measurement scale used to assess the dominance of a person's right or left hand in everyday activities, sometimes referred to as laterality. The inventory can be used by an observer assessing the person, or by a person self-reporting hand use. The latter method tends to be less reliable due to a person over-attributing tasks to the dominant hand.

The neuroscience of music is the scientific study of brain-based mechanisms involved in the cognitive processes underlying music. These behaviours include music listening, performing, composing, reading, writing, and ancillary activities. It also is increasingly concerned with the brain basis for musical aesthetics and musical emotion. Scientists working in this field may have training in cognitive neuroscience, neurology, neuroanatomy, psychology, music theory, computer science, and other relevant fields.

Yakovlevian torque

Yakovlevian torque is the tendency of the right side of the human brain to be warped slightly forward relative to the left and the left side of the human brain to be warped slightly backward relative to the right. This is responsible for certain asymmetries, such as how the lateral sulcus of the human brain is often longer and less curved on the left side of the brain relative to the right. Stated in another way, Yakovlevian Torque can be defined by the existence of right-frontal and left-occipital petalias, which are protrusions of the surface of one hemisphere relative to the other. It is named for Paul Ivan Yakovlev (1894–1983), a Russian-American neuroanatomist from Harvard Medical School.

Dichotic listening is a psychological test commonly used to investigate selective attention and the lateralization of brain function within the auditory system. It is used within the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

Lesley Joy Rogers Australian neurobiologist

Lesley Joy Rogers is a neurobiologist and emeritus professor of neuroscience and animal behaviour at the University of New England.

Tail wagging by dogs

Tail wagging by dogs is the behavior of the dog observed as its tail moves back and forth in the same plane. Within Canidae, specifically Canis lupus familiaris, the tail plays multiple roles, this can include balance, and communication. It is considered a social signal. The behaviour can be categorized by vigorous movement or slight movement of the tip of the tail. Tail wagging can also occur in circular motions, and when the tail is held at maximum height, neutral height, or between the legs.

Paul Satz was an American psychologist, and one of the founders of the discipline neuropsychology. His research on the relationship between the brain and human behavior spanned diverse topics including laterality, handedness, and developmental disorders. He published over 300 publications, received numerous grants and awards, and established the first neuropsychology lab. Towards the latter part of his career, Satz's research interests focused more on the cognitive deficits associated with head injury, dementia, and ageing.

An estimated 90% of the world's human population consider themselves to be right-handed. The human brain's control of motor function is a mirror image in terms of connectivity; the left hemisphere controls the right hand and vice versa. This theoretically means that the hemisphere contralateral to the dominant hand tends to be more dominant than the ipsilateral hemisphere, however this is not always the case and there are numerous other factors which contribute in complex ways to physical hand preference.


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