Why Do We Confuse Left and Right?

17 February, 2021
Many of us confuse left and right. In fact, experts estimate that almost 20 percent of the population has trouble telling the difference automatically. The reason for this lies in a very specific area of our brain: the angular gyrus.

That’s right, as strange as it may seem, many of us confuse left and right. Someone giving you an instruction during a yoga class or while driving can be enough to highlight your problems in this area. Rather than labeling yourself as clumsy, you need to understand that this differentiation is a complex neurological process.

You may have heard someone say “Give me that thing on your right. No! On your other right!“. This always makes people laugh, but it can actually be quite serious. It could cause you some real problems while driving.

Likewise, mistakes at a surgical level are quite well-known, where a medical team has operated on the wrong leg, or even removed the wrong kidney. The latter happened in 2000, as explained in a study published in the British Medical Journal. Urologist John G. Roberts removed the organ on the wrong side, causing the patient’s death by leaving him without his only functional kidney.

These are, undoubtedly, regrettable mistakes, where the stress factor can also increase their likelihood. Nevertheless, neurologists recommend that’s it’s a worthwhile exercise to try out some kind of mental strategy. Stopping for a few seconds to think about which is the left and which is the right can undoubtedly avoid small errors with undesirable consequences.

One of the factors which causes us to confuse left and right is due to mere distraction. This type of action requires us to be able to focus our attention for a few seconds – something that we don’t always do.

Fingers pointing upwards.

Why do we confuse left and right?

Some people point out that people who confuse left and right have a high IQ. However, there are no conclusive research results regarding this. What we do know is that around 20 percent have this problem quite frequently and that 99 percent of us have been wrong at some point. However, let’s have a look at what science tells us.

Differentiating left from right isn’t easy

Although you may find it funny, discriminating left from right implies quite a bit of effort for the human brain. In fact, it’s easier for it to know whether something is up or down. Differentiating whether something is on one side or the other with respect to your position involves a very complex neurobiological process.

  • This process involves sensory and perceptual information, memory, and even language function.
  • All of this is related to brain lateralization, the way it organizes information, and how it processes everything that surrounds us.
  • Therefore, identifying where our left and right is in a fraction of a second is neither simple nor automatic.

The angular gyrus in the parietal lobe may explain why we confuse left and right

Many of us confuse left and right on a constant basis. Far from being just an occasional occurrence, for some people, it seems to happen all the time. It makes it difficult for people to distinguish things, find their way, or even to have good enough coordination to do yoga or dance, for example.

A study conducted by doctors Michael Hirnstein, Uri Bayer, and Anne Ellison, and published in the journal Neurology, indicates that the area that regulates coordination regarding this decision-making is the angular gyrus in the parietal lobe. Some people have a lower activation in this area, hence the problems telling the difference between left and right.

However, there are more severe cases in which this area is more dysfunctional. This can lead to what’s known as Gerstmann’s syndrome (Gold et al. 1995). With this condition, the following symptomatology also appears:

Why do we confuse left and right?

What can we do to not confuse left and right?

Many people confuse left and right, and it’d be good to know what to do in these situations. Neurologists and psychologists recommend that we accept that everyone, absolutely everyone, can make mistakes in this area.

Factors such as stress or being in a noisy environment can cause us to make mistakes at any given moment (which could be serious when driving).

  • Therefore, to avoid these errors, a good piece of advice is to try to focus your attention.
  • There’s a very simple technique to differentiate left and right. To do this, just place your thumbs at a right angle to the index finger. The hand that represents an “L” will be the left hand.

Finally, there are some good games and exercises that you can download on your cellphone to help you improve orientation and laterality. At the end of the day, this isn’t a skill that’s only for children. Adults can also benefit from these types of mental exercises.

  • Gold M, Adair JC, Jacobs DH, Heilman KM. (1995). Right-left confusion in Gerstmann’s syndrome: a model of body centered spatial orientation. Cortex, 31, 267-283.
  • Gormley GJ, Brennan C, Dempster M. (2019). ‘What … you can’t tell left from right?’ Medical students’ experiences in making laterality decisions. Med Educ, in press.
  • Hirnstein M, Bayer U, Ellison A, Hausmann M. (2011). TMS over the left angular gyrus impairs the ability to discriminate left from right. Neuropsychologia, 49, 29-33.
  • Hjelmervik H, Westerhausen R, Hirnstein M, Specht K, Hausmann M. (2015). The neural correlates of sex differences in left-right confusion. Neuroimage, 113, 196-206.