My Left Arm

My Left Arm

Apparently, I have done the three things most likely to damage my right arm: drumming, kayaking, and tennis. All involve repetitive motions with the hand held high, and I have done a lot of each. In addition, my neck surgery caused some nerve damage to my right arm.  My left arm, however, is undamaged, as good as new, one might say. The trouble is, it is only my left arm and is therefore relatively underdeveloped compared to my right. During the last year I have undertaken to educate it, to work on improving it. This is my case report. It began when I realized I had to play tennis two-handed from now on, because I had lost power and accuracy in my right arm. Also, it hurt. So, I started using two hands for both backhand and forehand, practicing nearly every day. It has been nine months and I can now play two-handed tennis, which has its own charm. But the amazing thing has been the progress in my left arm, which has now taken on a new life, almost as if I have grown an extra limb. Or its partial paralysis has been cured, because I used to be highly right-handed. We tend to neglect our non-dominant arm (as it is normally described), letting it just hang there in an inferior role. The process has been fascinating: gradual but steady, as brain and muscle join forces, each developing in interaction with the other. I can feel the improvement from day to day. It’s slow, to be sure, too slow, but it happens. In hitting the backhand, you have to learn to rely on your left hand (assuming you are right-handed) and not expect your right hand to do the main work; it’s like a lefty forehand. The left side of your body gains a new autonomy. The will gets a firmer grip on it. It comes alive. It’s as if you have acquired a second body. A tennis coach said to me the other day that he loves the two-handed backhand, and I can see why: you use more of your body, you become symmetrical, you don’t droop on one side. You start respecting your sinistral self.

But the effects don’t just manifest themselves in tennis. My drumming has improved as my left hand acquired more dexterity. So did my guitar playing, because the fretting hand became more agile and controllable; the fingers got quicker, more connected to my will. But knife throwing was the real revelation. Throwing with my right arm is painful, so I had to focus on the left. At first it was hard even to get the knife to hit the target, let alone stick it. I had to learn how to throw with my left arm, as with throwing a ball. In tandem with this I was learning how to throw a frisbee lefthanded, which is incredibly difficult. Knife throwing is a complex skill, demanding much diligent practice; doing it lefthanded quadruples the difficulty. It was pretty frustrating. However, three months in, I can now throw it with power and accuracy, nailing a no-spin throw from, oh, ten feet or so (okay, I’m slightly exaggerating). It’s very satisfying, and miraculous-seeming. Wow, it went in! As it happens, I had to have a large tree removed from my property last week and I asked the guys if they would chainsaw me a slice of the trunk to use as a target. I now have three beautiful new targets each a couple of feet in diameter, mementoes of the tree (I was quite fond of that tree), which make excellent knife-beds—thethunk is delicious. I throw vigorously with my left arm, having raised it from the near-dead, like Lazarus; my right arm is quite jealous. So, the side-effect of disability has been ability. Would I like my right arm back, that old and reliable friend? Sure, but my left arm has stepped in to fill the gap with remarkable aplomb, and greatly to my surprise (I didn’t know it had it in it). Each moment of the day I can feel its coiled presence, ready to spring into action (it even types better than it used to). Body Wholeness, they call it. Bilateral Wellness. My advice: work on your left arm, you never know when you might need it. Dart throwing is a good place to start.[1]

[1] Has it added to the philosophical part of my brain? Not that I know of, but it isn’t impossible.

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8 replies
  1. Mark L
    Mark L says:

    Good to hear this, I shall definitely try and improve my left hand. Your last point is intriguing – left hand being linked to the right hemisphere. If Iain McGilchrist is correct – the right hemisphere is for seeing the big picture. Would be fascinating if your adventures in neural-plasticity would reap other mental benefits. However I’ve always thought that something like philosophy would need both sides of the brain – problems need to be broken down, but imaginative leaps also need to be made.

    The human body is constantly astonishing.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Given the degree of connectivity in the brain and the complexity of eye-hand skills, we might well expect some right hemisphere enhancement when the left hand gets educated beyond the norm.

      Reply
  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Inspiring. I am very right hand dominant. I did competitive fencing when I was younger. Though I haven’t picked up a foil or sabre for many years, I still feel the connections in arm and hand. (The specific weapons you grow up training with become part of your body. After many years of not using such an extended body part, the body memory of it remains as if one had a phantom limb.) I also did some knife throwing when I was younger (though just as a hobby). The thought of throwing with my left is farcical – I imagine attempting to throw with a rubber arm. Which is clearly unfair. In recent years I have taken up on-and-off knife fighting as a hobby (with a remarkable teacher – one of those true physical geniuses that teach out of their garage). Maybe I should ask my instructor to train me with my left hand. After reading your post, and now that I write about it, this is starting to feel like a moral question. Who am I to be so prejudiced? Why should I starve my left arm of a life? It can feel, have its own form of intelligence. Yes, inspiring.

    Reply
  3. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Do you know which of your eyes is dominant? This is something you learn in archery (the bow arm is determined by ocular dominance, not limb), and other sports involving a target. I am left eye dominant despite being very much right arm dominant (24% of right handers have this condition). I wonder if one can develop other eye dominance?

    Reply
  4. Paul Reinicke
    Paul Reinicke says:

    Handedness is an interesting topic. I went to a public school, but a couple people recently shared that they went to parochial schools and said nuns beat their left-handedness out of them. Nuns used to somehow associate left-handedness with Satan? While taking an AAA driving class I once tried writing my first name with my left hand, while simultaneously writing my last name with my right hand (I had two pens) It was surprisingly easy. But I had to go slow.

    Reply

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