Hooray, I’m right-brained! Or maybe not

By David H. Kirkwood

There is an amazing amount of hearing research being conducted in laboratories around the world, as I know from constantly scouring the web for reports on the latest discoveries.

For example, scientists at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology recently identified the role of the olivocochlear efferent system in protecting ears from hearing loss, a discovery that may lead to the development of screening tests to determine who is most susceptible to hearing loss.

Researchers at Rotman Research Institute in Toronto have found that non-musicians who speak tonal languages, such as Cantonese and Vietnamese, may develop a better ear for learning musical notes than those who speak English and other atonal languages.

One of the most productive centers for hearing-related research is the Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) in Detroit. There, Michael Seidman, MD, director of the Division of Otologic/Neurotologic Surgery, and colleagues, have made discoveries and published articles on a wide range of subjects, including the benefits of red wine (or, more accurately, of resveratrol, a grape constituent) in protecting the cochlea from noise exposure.



Just last week, HFHS reported on a new discovery by Seidman et al. Their study, which will be published online in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, found that if you’re a left-brain thinker (as about 95% of the population is), chances are you use your right hand to hold your phone up to your right ear. And, if you’re in that small minority of right-brain thinkers, you probably use your left hand and ear for the phone.

To determine a possible association between sidedness of cell phone use and auditory or language hemispheric dominance (left-brain thinkers have their speech and language center on the left side of the brain, right-brainers have it on the right), the Henry Ford team developed an online survey using modifications of a protocol long used to assess left- or right-handedness and to predict cerebral dominance.

The data from the 717 survey respondents revealed that most left-brain dominant people use the phone in their right ear, despite there being no perceived difference in their hearing between ears. Right-brain dominant people, on the other hand, tend to use their left hand and hold the phone to their left ear.

Now, you may say, these findings are interesting, but are they useful? Quite possibly, said Dr. Seidman. He explained, “Our findings have several implications, especially for mapping the language center of the brain. By establishing a correlation between cerebral dominance and sidedness of cell phone use, it may be possible to develop a less invasive, lower-cost option to establish the side of the brain where speech and language occurs.”



Personally, as long as my speech and language center is working reasonably well, I don’t much care where it resides. And, with any luck, I’ll never need to know.

However, what intrigues me about the Henry Ford findings is that they offer me hope that I may belong to that select company of right-brain thinkers. This 5% or so of the population are, science–or at least pop science–tells us accounts for most of the sensitive, creative types–the artists, the musicians, the poets and novelists. They are the people who follow their intuition rather than logic, who can freely express their own emotions and read those of others, and who are adept at recognizing faces.

Until recently, the evidence all seemed to point to my belonging to the steady, unimaginative majority who listen to reason and logic. Now, however, thanks to the findings of Seidman et al., I’m having second thoughts about my left brainedness. For, though I am usually right-handed, when it comes to using the phone (either cell or land-line), I am 100% left-handed and left-eared. I can’t even imagine using my right hand or ear for the phone.

If that is a marker of right-brain dominance, then maybe I do belong to the 5%. After 35 years of writing factual prose, perhaps it’s time to take a crack at writing the great American novel. Or I could channel my right-brained creativity into painting. True, I couldn’t draw a round circle if my life depended upon it. But could Jackson Pollock? I doubt it, and he did okay.



Fortunately, before I did anything drastic, reason (what else?) intervened. It occurred to me that my leftist telephone use wasn’t a sign of right-brained intuition or creativity. Rather, it was a necessary adjustment to my profession.

Over the past several decades, I have spent countless hours holding a phone to my left ear while taking notes with my right hand. Since I am decidedly right-handed when it comes to writing, I really had no choice. So, in my case, and probably that of a lot of people who want to do something with their right hand while they are on the phone, the obvious, sensible decision is to use their left hand and ear on the phone.

And that poses a conundrum. As Dr. Seidman pointed out, it is logical for people, at least right-handers, to hold the phone in their left hand to free their right hand for writing. Yet, of those surveyed for his study, 68% of the right-handed respondents report doing the illogical thing: They use their left hand on the phone. These are, for the most part, left-brained thinkers, so what gives? Why don’t they behave logically?

Before writing this, I raised the issue with Dr. Seidman, who was kind enough to reply to my non-scientific e-mail. He wrote, “Long story short, it would be ‘logical’ to use your dominant hand to write and use your non-dominant ear (if you will) to listen, so you and others who do the ‘logical’ thing have likely trained themselves to do this.”

That makes sense, and probably it’s what happened in my case. Yet, I’m still a bit puzzled. Here’s what I’ve come up with. When right-brained thinkers use their left hand and ear on the phone, it’s not for logical reasons. They just feel like it.

Joining them in their telephone habits, but for completely different reasons, are extreme left-brainers who are so logical that we train ourselves to overcome our natural inclination to hold the phone in our dominant hand. Either that, or we are well-disguised right brainers.