Radiolab's podcast for last Tuesday, when I was dragging a rat out to Allston in vain, was an interesting little piece called "What's Left When You're Right?" The whole thing's worth listening to, if you're the sort who likes interesting little thought problems with some entertaining background, but the last segment, "What's Right When You're Left?", about an inexperienced boxer foolishly trying his first fight against a southpaw, got me thinking.

Humans are pretty definite about having a preferred hand. The phenomenon is generally called 'laterality', and it occurs in more than just human handedness, both in the sense that humans also tend to have a dominant eye, ear, leg, etc., and in that other animals show a preference for handedness. I don't have a full list of "handed" species, but the Radiolab guys mention that macaws are about 90% left-taloned -- exactly the opposite of humans -- and rats are generally known to be about 10%-ish left-pawed. I don't know about birds, but my own anecdotal evidence suggests that handedness is heritable in rats about the same as it is in humans. The Bridge Crew was the only batch I've had that I can be sure were all full siblings, and all four of them were left-pawed. It's difficult to find stats on ambidexterity, in part because even people who are coordinated with both hands tend to prefer one or the other, but most suggestions are about 1%. Interestingly, there seems to be a much higher percentage of rats (5-7%) who don't care which paw grabs the food, as long as the food paw belongs to them.

It's difficult to generalize from a few examples, but I will note that the handed species mentioned are all known for not just being clever and having excellent fine motor coordination, but also being aggravated by the presence of an unsolved puzzle. Rats and talking birds are notorious for figuring out how to undo complicated cage latches, and then not really doing anything much about it once it's done. Rats will just go 'open open open i know this opens i have seen this open how does it open CHEW CHEW CHEW RATTLE RATTLE RATTLE' for hours on end until they figure out how it works, stick their faces out and smell things for about thirty seconds, and then go home to take a nap, because things that are already open aren't that interesting.

It happens to be of particular interest to me because of the figure skating investigations, and the fact that I came up on the oddball side of things again. Somewhere in the range of 90% of skaters do all their jumps and spins counterclockwise, and I don't. I confess my reaction to figuring out I ought to be going clockwise on jumps was a mix of 'hooray! I'm rare!' and 'oh goddamnit, I'm weird'. I wonder, in fact, if the numbers of CW jumpers is somewhat artificially low -- CCW spinners are so prevalent that formal instruction is generally done in that direction, and when you've got an authority figure telling you that the correct way to do things is to jump off your left foot and swing with your right, then a comparatively low number of students are going to have the brainwave 'hey, try that the other way maybe?' It is surprisingly difficult to sort out the feet going the wrong way. A lot of the people who ought to be jumping CW may well just conclude they have no aptitude for this and quit. A completely unscientific survey of Wikipedia suggests a high proportion of CW spinners in the pros started out by teaching themselves how to work on roller skates, or by fucking around on dance floor like I've been doing, and were already very definite about which way they were supposed to be going around by the time they got formal lessons.

Several sources indicate that the directional preference is tied to hand preference, usually assuming that right-handed = counterclockwise jumper. Just from observation I can tell you that this is mainly hogwash, although I see an unusually high rate of functional ambidexterity in skaters who can do most of the spinny-things in both directions. Johnny Weir signs things right and is otherwise pretty definitely right-hand dominant, but spins CW; Stéphane Lambiel signs right but wears his watch right and handles things like bottle caps with his left, and is CCW dominant for quads and most triples, but quite capable of landing doubles and doing most spins CW if he feels like it. I haven't caught Rohene Ward signing anything yet, but I've only seen him land doubles CW, and when he spins and spirals he's balanced on his left leg, which is what I'd expect of a CCW spinner. Michelle Kwan is famous for a backwards camel spin, but as far as I know that's the only thing she does clockwise.

Very nearly 100% of skaters spin the same direction they jump. You can't really do scratch spins or corkscrew scratch spins or layback spins on a dance floor, because friction prevents you from maintaining the rotation long enough, but you can certainly kick off like you're going to do one. I do both pirouette-style spins and backspins clockwise, like the jumps, but for sit spins I want to balance on my right leg with my left propped out for balance -- which is for a counterclockwise spinner. This is going to cause me some issues if I ever want to learn flying spins, which I do, because death drops look like a hell of a lot of fun. The only skater I've found who jumped and spun natively in opposite directions is John Curry, who amusingly enough, also shares a birthday with me. He also does his Ina Bauers --another thing that's much more comfortable on one side than the other -- on the same feet I do, opposite most skaters.

The other theories floated is that spin dominance has to do with leg dominance, or even eye dominance. This would be easier to test if the tests for leg/eye dominance didn't give me ambiguous results every damn time. I quite definitely do not have a dominant eye. It causes me no end of trouble if I lose a contact lens for some reason. Most people can function with one lens in and one out, as their brain will just set the non-dominant eye to 'ignore' and they can walk around with mostly monocular vision until they can fix the situation. I can't. My brain insists on paying attention to both inputs, and I'm not talented enough to set each eye to a different focal length. Either both lenses come out, or I walk around with a hand over one eye, like a particularly slapdash pirate. Most tests for eye dominance are things like 'what eye do you use for kaleidoscopes or telescopes?' which is rubbish for me -- they all go right, not because my right eye is better, but because I'm strongly right-hand dominant and consistently use my right hand to hold or steady anything that's going to be right up against my very valuable eyeball. The test that comes close to working is the one where you focus on something distant through a small aperture held about a foot away from your face, and all that tells me is that I have to pick an arbitrary eye to use, because if I look straight on the distant thing I'm supposed to be looking at is hidden by the overlap of the images of the aperture edge.

The dominant leg test is no more helpful. Most of them look like this one. I step forward on my right foot, but my left knee goes down first when kneeling. (Sometimes this test asks which foot you prop yourself on when getting off the floor; the question is moot for me, since I usually do this by getting both feet under me seza and then rolling back on my toes.) Which direction I cross my legs has more to do with where I'm sitting and what kind of foot room I have, and I switch legs if one of them starts to fall asleep. The jump rope test is a new one on me; I used to do a lot of that in grade school and junior high, including some fairly fancy tricks, and until I looked that up I had no idea that other people pull one foot off the ground before the other. I bounce on both toes. I haven't got any convenient friends to shove me around, nor do I have a sand pit in which to measure footsteps right now, as everything outside is frozen solid right now.

It would help if any of these ever mentioned whether the "dominant" leg is supposed to be the stronger one or the more dexterous one. or even whether it's weird that these are not the same leg for me. Whichever way it goes, I generally want to push my weight around with my right, and direct my weight with my left. My hula hoops go backwards for the same reason I jump backwards: I want to plant my right foot for stability and throw me/the hoop forward and around with my left hip. I can hoop the other way if I have to, but it's distinctly awkward.


  1. I spin and jump the standard directions, but my best friend goes the opposite way. Unfortunately she's been skating longer than I have, so I'm not sure how she found out that she did. I do know that when I was just starting out I kept trying to wind up my spins the way she did and got told off for it, so I'm not sure if that was an issue of native foot dominance or just me not knowing what I was doing.
    According to those tests I'm at least slightly right-leg dominant, but everything I do on the ice leads with the left, so I'm going to assume that that's probably a more accurate assessment. (Though I lead spread eagles and Ina Bauers with the right foot, to the extent that I can do them at all. (I can't do them very well; my flexibility was nothing to write home about before I quit and three years without stretching or practicing stripped away any amount I'd achieved through work.))

    1. Spread eagles are just an open second position in ballet; I've done that so much I could probably lead them off either direction. I could probably accomplish an Ina Bauer with either leg front in a standing position, since getting my knees and feet to do that isn't really an issue, but for the layback ones, my right foot needs to be front, because in that variation the front foot is bracing much more weight than the back one, and my right leg is more stable.

      I can flick myself around for salchow jumps and standing spins in either direction, but I have to put much more thought into it if I want to go CCW. The coordination is harder on axels; I flail like a yob and I two-foot the landing a lot, but I don't fall down.

      I'm seriously considering following Lambiel on this as well. His coaches occasionally refer to a time before he'd got his jumps in the other direction. Evidently at some point he just went 'wait, why am I only going one way?', got the answer 'because', and decided that was stupid and he should fix it. I'm intimately familiar with that impulse, and in this case, since I'm not working against the clock to finish a competitive career before puberty hits, I think indulging it would only be helpful.


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