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Human Right & Left Handedness

Speaker: Prof. Chris McManus, UCL

13TH MAY 2010


Prof. Chris McManus is currently based jointly in the Research Department of Clinical, Education and Health Psychology, which is a part of the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences and in turn is a part of the Faculty of Brain Sciences, and in the Academic Centre for Medical Education (ACME), which is a part of UCL Medical School. UCL Medical School and the Faculty of Brain Sciences are components of the School of Life and Medical Sciences of University College London.


The following has been taken from Professor McManus’ comprehensive website:-


I have been studying handedness, lateralisation and asymmetry since I was an undergraduate, when I published two papers on how painted portraits are more likely to show their left cheek than their right, and how Rembrandt used the right cheek more often in his self-portraits and in portraits of his male and female kin. Chapters 13 and 14 of my PhD thesis followed up these questions, and they were also reviewed in a 2005 paper. My interest in asymmetries in art also resulted in a now notorious paper entitled 'Scrotal asymmetry in man and in ancient sculpture', for which in 2002 I was awarded an Ig Nobel prize. The topic was also discussed in more detail in chapter 12 of my PhD thesis, that chapter also eventually being published in 2004.


Genetic models of handedness and cerebral lateralisation. My PhD mainly concerned genetic models of handedness and cerebral lateralisation (see chapters 7 and 8). Click here for the monograph that describes the genetic model that was first presented in my PhD thesis. More technical reviews of the issues can be found in a chapter contributed to the 1990 Ciba Symposium on lateralisation, or to the 1992 chapter in the Handbook of Developmental Psychology. If you are looking for a very brief answer to the question, "Why are some left-handed and others right-handed?", then a good start may be the answer that New Scientist asked me to provide for its Last Word section.


Right Hand, Left Hand. In 2002 I published a popular science book called Right Hand, Left Hand which discussed right-left asymmetries from a very broad perspective, looking not only at right and left-handedness in their everyday sense, but also at brain asymmetry, bodily asymmetries, asymmetries in biochemistry, chemistry and physics, the philosophical problems underlying asymmetry, and the social, cultural and anthropological meanings which are attached to right and left, as well as the surprisingly complex issues surrounding the side of the road on which countries choose to drive. The website for Right Hand, Left Hand also has a number of tests and questionnaires which can be completed, the data from which are being used in various research projects.


Philip Ball described the book in the Financial Times, in 2009, as:


“Everything you could want to know about why left-right symmetry exists and what it means in nature, in humans, in art and in culture. It is one of those books that isn’t afraid to venture wherever the topic takes us, whether that is the origin of life, Billy the Kid or Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. It’s my favourite sort of science book, in which the science is just a launching pad for excursions into all kinds of wild and wonderful terrain.”


The Right Hand and the Left Hand of History. This special issue of Laterality is devoted to eight papers covering a wide range of issues concerned with right, left and asymmetry in historical contexts.' Click here for more information.

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