Linguistic Ambidexterity

OK, this is interesting.

From the User’s Guide to the Brain by John Ratey:

If you want to verify the lateralization concept [of language dominance in the brain hemispheres] for yourself, take this test: Try to repeat a passage of poetry while you simultaneously tap a finger on the table. It is significantly more difficult to tap a finger on your right hand than your left, because the movement of the right finger is controlled by the left hemisphere and competes for neurons with the language areas there. The brain is not limitless. If you found the reverse, you may be one of the few people whose right hemisphere dominates language. If you can tap fingers on both hands equally well, you may be linguistically ambidextrous.

I had a shot at this under my breath, tapping fingers on my knees because I was in my favorite reading chair and there was a math tutoring session going on at the nearest table. I used my own poem, the one from my bouquet of love lyrics that starts out “Be damned and double damned, you cur…” Sonofagun if I didn’t blank on some of the words around the second line while I was tapping my left forefinger. I tried the right. Everything rolled out. Went through the sequence again. Same result. Not dramatic, not a total block, but it was easy tapping on the right, just a bit of work on the left, like speaking your own language versus your fourth year of foreign language in high school.

Apparently my brain is on backwards. Who knew?

This is even more interesting because although I am a kinetic bastard — ask anyone in the gym — I am also a klutz who can trip over a chalk line on the sidewalk and have all the grace of an intoxicated wolverine. There is some information enfolded here about language crowding into every crevice and interstice of my Mercury-intoxicated brain* and crowding out motor fluency, if I can figure it out.

Try it and see how your mileage varies.


*The Olympian patron of language, not the heavy metal. I deplore heavy metal.


11 thoughts on “Linguistic Ambidexterity

    • It also might be likely that the more literary a person you are, the more widely distributed your language neurons are. It would be an interesting experiment to compare populations who aren’t especially verbal to people like us who probably write in our sleep.

  1. Couldn’t notice a difference doing the test with your own poem (that short passage, at least).

    To be fair, I have had a problem with the left/right brain concept for a long time. It is a fact that the left brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa. However, I tend to believe a myth emerged from an observation that many artists are left handed, while writers are more often right handed. Recent studies (read, last few decades) show no particular differentiation in the left or right brain when accomplishing many tasks. While there is a small difference (most people have one side which works slightly harder), all of your tasks are almost always accomplished with about the same amount of cells in both sides at once, like if both sides of the brain were in fact a mirror of each other.

    I’d be happy to read any study which you are aware of that shows otherwise. I’m a live fish salesperson, I don’t know shit about brains!

    • That’s exactly the point or Dr. Ratey’s book, the left/right brain concept has been horribly oversimplified. In MOST people primary language centers are in the left hemisphere and a comparable area in the right is involved with music, which is why some stroke patients cannot speak but can sing. And of course, there are many, many exceptions to the traditional brain map; it’s constantly being rewritten. The book is impressive because it puts together the most current thinking about brain function from various sources, not all of whom agree.

      There’s another book called “The Brain that Changes Itself” by a medical author named Doidge, which is about the adaptability of different brain regions. There is some amazing research into how areas of the brain can specialize but can also adapt to take over for damaged areas IF you make them work. Usually the result is not perfect but a lot better than nothing. In the process they’ve found brain areas that respond when you’re naming vegetables and others that respond when you’re naming furniture. That kind of thing.

      I was fine on the first line, the second began to get choppy. The best test is to pick a poem you know pretty well, I think. It feels quite weird to have trouble with something that you normally can just reel off.

    • Once upon a midnight dreary
      While I wandered, weak and weary…
      “Hi!!!!” said the Raven.

      I have never forgotten a smartass in my fifth grade class breaking us all up with that.

      I can’t remember much of the Cremation of Sam McGee, but a great deal of the Ballad of Eskimo Nell, which is sort of a riff on Robert W. Service.

      And then, into that home of sin,
      Into that harlot’s Hell,
      Strode a lusty maid who was never afraid —
      Her name was Eskimo Nell…

      Still trying to remember the first couplet of the stanza that concludes “And with a curl of her lips and a twist of her hips/Sucked him dry like a vacuum cleaner.”

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