My history of Tourette syndrome (A Cursing Brain, 1999) involved observing pediatric patients at a university clinic. I noticed that the patient population seemed to have an unusually high proportion of left-handers. Being left-handed myself, I wondered whether and why this might be so. Popular literature often asserts that left-handers are more creative and, in contradiction, more often afflicted with learning disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, attention disorders, retardation, and stuttering. My search for the possible connection between left-handers, learning disabilities, and creativity is examined in my forthcoming book, On the Other Hand: Left Hand, Right Brain, Mental Disorder, and History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Here, I want to explore whether left-handers are at greater risk of stuttering.
In the early-twentieth-century United States many educators and physicians believed that left-handers more often exhibited mental and cognitive disabilities. To reduce this risk they advocated “retraining” left-handers to become right-handed. The methods employed were often tortuous, including corporal punishment, tying a child’s left hand to immobilize it, and humiliation of children resisters. Psychoanalyst Abram Blau, chief psychiatrist of the New York City Board of Education, summed up the views of advocates of retraining in his influential 1946 book, The Master Hand: A Study of the Origin and Meaning of Left and Right Sidedness, warning that, unless retrained, left-handed children risked severe and life-long mental and cognitive deficits.
Stuttering was one of the conditions that Blau and other experts had long associated with left-handedness. This seemed odd to me because in the US, while practice retraining was now in disfavor, the numbers of stutters had been declining while the number of practicing left-handers was increasing. Part of the explanation for this contradiction rested in the history of opposition to retraining.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, rejecting the warnings of advocates of retraining, opponents suspected that retraining left-handers had negative consequences, especially stuttering. In his widely used 1914 textbook, The Hygiene of the School Child, Stanford University psychologist Lewis M. Terman (1877-1956) concluded that a third to half of all stuttering among school children resulted from attempts to transform left-handed children into right-handers.
Terman’s claims were given credence by two influential University of Iowa researchers, psychiatrist Samuel Torrey Orton (1879–1948) and psychologist Lee Edward Travis (1896–1987). Orton was the founding director of the State Psychopathic Hospital in Iowa City and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry; while Travis, founder of the profession of speech pathology, was director of the university’s speech clinic. From the late 1920s until the 1950s, Orton, Travis, and their students published a series of articles and books connecting the etiology of stuttering to retraining. Like Orton, Travis identified the typical stutterer as a natural born left-hander as having right hemispheric brain dominance, who early in life had been forced to write with their right-hand. This retraining, according to Travis, served to strengthen the “naturally weaker left side of his brain until one side is equal or nearly equal in power to the other side.” However, Travis warned, “one-half of the brain must be in complete control . . . If there is equal dominance, we have the stutterer who stutters under all conditions of speech.”
Travis’s views were endorsed and expanded by his student Bryng Bryngelson (1892–1979), who became director of the speech clinic at the University of Minnesota in 1933. Bryngelson concluded that stuttering was connected to “ambidexterity in some of the individuals . . . due to left-handed tendencies not responding completely to right-handed training” because neither hemisphere exercised dominance.
Not everyone was persuaded. In 1938 University of North Carolina educator K. C. Garrison cited the results of a 4-year “campaign to ‘cure’ left-handedness” by the New Jersey public schools during which “left-handedness was reduced from 250 cases to sixty-six cases.” According to the school officials, “not a single case of defective speech resulted.” The cause of stuttering, wrote Garrison, was not retraining but rather “the nervous condition of the child and the methods used to effect a change.”
The influence of psychoanalytic psychiatry is evident in the retraining advocates. In his 1946 study Blau particularly deplored the practice “of the past few decades” in which some experts “have strongly advised parents . . . that the child should be free . . . to choose the side for himself, so that the ‘instinctive’ dominance would thus be allowed to emerge unadulterated by any outside influences.” Such a putatively progressive practice, Blau warned, was “neglectful, harmful, and has tended to counteract many of the normal cultural influences for dextrality.” Others in the 1950s concluded that whether stuttering arose among the retrained depended on methods employed to switch left-handers and the age at which the change in handedness was initiated.
Those who saw a connection between retraining and stuttering hypothesized that reversing retraining could cure stuttering. In 1935, two of Travis’s students, Wendell Johnson and Lucille Duke, published detailed case reports of 16 stutterers, 14 of whom were natural left-handers made to write with their right hands. All 16 had reverted to writing with their natural hand and, according to the authors, their stuttering either ceased or was substantially ameliorated. Other researchers, including Orton, reported similar findings. Reviewing the past two decades of research on “the study of handedness and its relation to speech,” renowned London neurologist W. Russell Brain (1885–1966) reported in The Lancet in 1945 that “there is considerable evidence correlating stuttering with anomalies of handedness.”
Although most experts no longer see a direct cause and effect between hand switching and stuttering, they nevertheless oppose forcing left-handers to convert to right-handed writing. Despite the “early and impressive statistical reports” psychologist Lauren Julius Harris, writing in 1990, concluded that the evidence that retraining caused stuttering was weak. Still, he admitted that we “know little more on this question [than] in the 1930s” because studies since then “have ignored the question of hand training and have focused on the broader question of whether speech disorders are more common in left-handers generally.”
I hope my forthcoming book will reawaken interest in determining whether there is a link between left-handedness and stuttering, not least of all because, unlike in the U.S. and Europe, most of the planet’s left-handers remain subjected to discrimination and retraining.
Howard I. Kushner is Nat C. Robertson Distinguished Professor of Science & Society Emeritus at Emory University where he held joint appointments as Professor in the Rollins School of Public Health and in Emory College. Kushner joined the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition in the Communications Department of the University of California, San Diego in 2015. He also is John D. Adams Professor of History Emeritus at San Diego State University. He is author of five books including, A Cursing Brain? The Histories of Tourette Syndrome (1999), American Suicide: A Psychocultural Exploration (1991). His latest book, On the Other Hand: Left Hand, Right Brain, Mental Disorder, and History, is available now.