Lateral awareness, or the ability to discriminate left from right is an acquired skill. Most people have it by age 10 and most people start to lose in after age 50 (good times). Lateral awareness, of course, falls on a spectrum and here are the results so far:
“A recent survey of 800 people found that 9 percent of men and 18 percent of women report a problem with left-right discrimination. And when 290 undergraduate medical students from Ireland were tested on laterality using a series of stick-figure images, more than half of them had trouble, scoring less than 77 percent (the test had 144 questions). Both of these studies found that women struggled more than men; one of the world’s leading researchers on this subject, Dr. Gerard Gormley of Queen’s University Belfast, became interested in the subject because his wife often mixed up her left and right. (She’s a righty who also mimes writing to set herself straight.) The studies also found that lateral awareness did not affect intellect—although in practice, spatial reasoning troubles can make you feel like a doofus, in fact they do not indicate inferior intellect. (Phew!)”
Truth time gentle readers! I’m pretty good with left and right, but the cardinal directions always send me for a loop – especially when travelling South. Everything just feels wrong as I’m navigating through the directions. I keep hoping that my sense of unease will diminish, but as of yet, no luck. Successfully navigating to a school across town is the first victory of the day, getting attendance is the second. Once those hurdles have been overcome, the easy part of the day, teaching ambivalent children can begin.
My google map experiences are one thing, but getting mixed up as health care professional can have obvious deleterious consequences.
“However, the field under the most pressure to avoid lateral confusion is medicine. In the dentist’s chair, there’s money wasted when hygienists x-ray the wrong tooth. It’s even worse when a left-right-disoriented dentist pulls one or more teeth from the incorrect side of the mouth. It’s even more serious in general surgery: A 2011 report estimates that there are 40 wrong-site surgeries done weekly in the U.S., and many of those involve mixing up a patient’s left and right. This is a devastating problem: If a doctor removes the healthy kidney and not the cancerous one, the results can be fatal. Wrong eye? Now we have a fully blind patient.
Healthcare professionals work in tricky circumstances that make laterality harder. For them, distinguishing left from right almost always requires rotation. During a consultation, a patient is often sitting up, but that same patient is likely lying down during the subsequent procedure. The doctor or nurse’s perspective in the operating room could then change if he or she moves around the room while the patient stays stationary.
In addition, in medical situations—and in the transportation and aviation industries—there’s often time pressure and a bustle of other things going on. A 2015 study of medical students found that distracting people with sounds impacted their ability to tell left from right, and interrupting them with cognitive tasks made matters even worse. This is why the second item on the WHO’s Surgical Safety Checklist asks if the surgical site is marked—ideally by someone not distracted, and well in advance of the pressures of the operating suite.”
So, when at a hospital and if conscious make sure you talk to your surgeon and have them mark the procedure beforehand. Just to be safe.
“That leaves us with our mnemonic devices. Some wear a wristwatch. Others make a capital “L” with their fingers. But it’s been shown that people who use mnemonic devices, particularly in a medical setting, are those the most likely to make mistakes. Our tricks fail, in other words, and practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect.”
Yeah, so mnemonic devices are out. Pretty bleak picture eh? :/ While I was reading this, I thought of the common practice of turning down the radio while looking for parking or following directions. We often see on the internet people making fun of the practice, but as this study indicates loud noises/distractions hinder our ability to make left/right distinctions. So perhaps the radio-muters might just be on to something. :)