Jun 28, 2017 | Updated: 09:10 PM EDT

Are Left-Handers Better at Math?

Jun 19, 2017 12:21 PM EDT

Rubic's Cube.
(Photo : Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

There are many brilliant famous left-handers, including Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain, Mozart, and Aristotle, along with Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and soccer star Lionel Messi. But is there a relationship between left-handedness and mathematical ability -- or even intelligence in general?

A new study in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that there is a connection between handedness and mathematical ability, based on which parts of the brain are being used.

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Left-handers on average exhibit a more developed right brain hemisphere, which specializes in processes such as spatial reasoning and the ability to visualize mental representations of objects. Similarly, the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerves connecting the two brain hemispheres, tends to be larger in left-handers, which suggests an "enhanced connectivity" between the two hemispheres of the brain.

Evidence of this includes the overrepresentation of left-handers among acclaimed musicians, artists, architects and chess players, all activities for which efficient information processing and spatial skills are essential.

But the relationship between left-handedness and mathematical capability has been controversial. Various past studies have indicated both that left-handedness could indicate increased ability and intelligence or that it could be detrimental to learning. For example, one study found that left-handers appeared to be over-represented among people with intellectual disabilities.

So which is it?

The latest study, by Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobert at University of Liverpool, takes into account the variables associated with testing for left-handedness and mathematics, namely which kind of math is being tested for, such as arithmetic or complex problem-solving, and how strong the participants' left-handed preference was.

In the study, as explained in detail by The Conversation, a series of experiments were performed on 2,300 students in a range of tasks, including writing, drawing, throwing, and problem-solving. The results show that left-handers outperformed the rest of the sample in difficult problem-solving tasks, such as associating mathematical functions to a given set of data. Important to note was that the distinction occurred with particularly difficult mathematical tasks, not simple arithmetic problems. 

So there seems to be a relationship between left-handedness and mathematical ability, and increased connectivity between the two hemispheres of the brain from a cognition standpoint. Still much remains to be studied, including people with a more developed right hemisphere who are not left-handed, and whether left-handers are perhaps hindered in other intellectual or cognitive ways.

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