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AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 27, Number 4, 2018

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The Years of Living Ambidextrously

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I switched to my left hand to stay awake.  Being a kinetic learner who needs to be engaged through active movement, sitting through a lecture was torture. Forced to be still, I would often be overcome by a compelling urge to sleep. This is a battle I typically lost somewhere between “Hello class” and “Today we’ll be discussing….”.  It was disheartening to wake up in an empty auditorium with the judgmental janitor and her sarcastic “excuse me”.  

I slunk out of the dark room in shame.  I craved something physical to do while incarcerated in that lecture hall. It was during pathology while trying to stifle a yawn that I changed the pen to my left hand. This became my new sport, cross dominance training. I attacked this experiment religiously. A natural right hander, this was the challenge that revived me and kept me awake.

My left hand wrote awkward reams of indecipherable notes. I gave up, started again, cast it aside during my clinical years, came back. The training wheels finally came off ten years later during a writing workshop when I heard an inaudible click. And there it was, permanently laid down. The synaptic pathways matured, rewired and I neurologically mastered the left hand.  Now that it has, I can’t take it back and like other complex learned physical abilities, it stuck. 

In 1903, the Ambidextral Culture Society, established by John Jackson, believed that “Widespread adoption of ambidexterity would, lead to “a brave new world of two-handed, two-brained citizens”.  Based on the concept of neuroplasticity, this notion passed into obsolescence until a sleep deprived medical student nominated herself to become an Ambidexter Ambassador, later changing the movement to the Ambidexter Millennial Society on Instagram. Millennials are perfectly adapted to become ambidexters in their abundant use of handheld devices. For this reason, Ambidexterity may be on the rise. 

I believe ambidextering has altered my brain’s wiring. While I have no neuroscience backup for this claim and the evidence might be opaque at best, it is clear to me that my synapses are fired up. This is a better question for a pet scan or the autopsy table. I doubt “artist” would have been added to my resume without the use of my left hand and activation of my right hemisphere. This folkloric assertion leaves me open to taking a few exit wounds. What better way to fend off attacks than the ability to deflect with either hand? 

In med school there was not even a half-brained awareness that this simple switch would so physically impact my life.  If anyone had said then that training my non-dominant hand was worth devoting my life to, the incessant laughter from such ridiculousness would have kept me up. I can hear the howls of everyone rolling on the floor when I claim that becoming ambidextrous was almost as hard as training to be a neurosurgeon – well, try it for a year and get back to me. To switch hands is no easy magic. It is a physical and mental trick to challenge your birth dominance for no good reason than to keep from dozing off. If I went to my left hand to stay awake when I became ambidextrous, I got woke.

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Shay Bintliff,MD | November 13, 2019 at 1:24 pm

Great to hear from you! Aloha, Doc Shay