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Who's your boss?

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia (The Philippine Star) - September 6, 2012 - 12:00am

Who chooses for you? Most of us would like to think that we are able to do slow, carefully measured as well as split-second evaluations and then say “I choose this.” We do that casually imbued with the inherent pride of an individual belonging to a distinct species, Homo sapiens sapiens, who, as the name denotes, not only knows but knows that she knows. Then of course, our choices are also products of what your childhood exposed you to, as well as the many images that media feeds you. But hey, guess what? It turns out that your body has been making certain choices for you. The orientation and the gestures that your body makes, studies have found, make those choices for you, whether it is a choice of a thing or an action.

The things that I have come across are as disconcerting for me as much as they were revealing. They involve my right and left and the seemingly simple gestures my body makes. They make their own decisions and I go along with them without question!

Daniel Casasanto of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics has, with his colleagues, led several studies since 2009 that showed evidence that we favor things on our right if we are right-handed and we choose the things on our left if we are left-handed. In one study, they showed that subjects preferred images presented and even associated what is good and positive with their dominant side. In another study, it was even shown that particular US presidential candidates would express positive ideas with their dominant hands and negative ones with the other. In the most recent related study by Casasanto and his colleagues published in Cognitive Science and reported in Scientific American last July 30, six-year-old kids perceived cartoon images on their dominant side as smarter and nicer. Even more, when the kids put away their toys, they put away the toys they liked on the boxes placed on their dominant side.

But the story changes and this is how. In one experiment, the subjects were asked to wear a ski glove that would compromise the agility of their dominant hand in manipulating dominoes. When the right-handed participants could not do things as well with their right hand, they started to favor things on the left side.  The same applied to the lefties.  In another study in this series, stroke patients whose dominant side was immobilized started to favor things presented to their other side. 

In a past column, I wrote about why scientists think that 90 percent of humans are right-handed. They think it is because logic played the bigger and more successful role in helping humans survive. Right-hand choices are guided by the left side of the brain, the dominant side when we are figuring things out logically. But once in a while, we need to react to the unexpected, to take a creative leap in order to survive. This is what the right side of the brain (which guides lefties) does. Understandably if we follow this theory, there will be really less lefties because a lifescape is composed of details that can be generally negotiated with common sense and logic, periodically punctuated with creativity.

There have also been studies that have shown that if your mind is not cooperating to get you into the state of mind you want or need to be, you just simply have to start acting the part to jumpstart you in that direction. It is called the “As If principle.” They include smiling as widely as possible for 20 seconds to feel happier, tensing your muscles like gripping a pen to resist things whether they be ice cream or cigarettes, washing or taking a shower to lessen your guilt feelings, or simply starting what you have been procrastinating on to get the urge to complete it right away. This is different from “positive thinking” when we just think it and our bodies will follow.

The studies I have mentioned above gave me mixed feelings of loss of control and relief. I realized I am not really in control even when asked to consciously choose. I now know that I probably don’t really employ a list of what I think are fair criteria every time I choose and that most of the time, my body guides me to making those choices. But at the same time, I feel relief that I don’t have to do conscious calculations all the time to move on. Lastly, I feel a new and strange kind of trust and respect I have for the common right-handed woman that I am and the gestures I make.

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For comments, e-mail dererumnaturastar@hotmail.com

AS IF CASASANTO CHOICES COGNITIVE SCIENCE DANIEL CASASANTO OF THE MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE DOMINANT HANDED RIGHT SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN SIDE THINGS
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