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Biology, Learning

Handedness and learning and the assumptions we make

The first question people ask me when they find out that my one wrist is basically a disaster at the end of an arm is “are you right or left handed?” I find this question kind of frustrating because there are very few parts of my life which only require one hand. Sure, I can still cut things out cleanly, and if I only need to use one piece of cutlery you might never even realize I have a less than fully functional wrist. But, dragon boating, typing, driving, riding a bike, pulling a paper towel from the dispensar, and playing clarinet or saxophone, all benefit from having the full use of both hands – keeping in mind of course that until a few years ago I did do all these things two-handed. With my current limitations I sometimes have to take longer to learn a new task or to problem solve a physical challenge because I need to figure it out while making sure the solution is within my present abilities. As a result of my personal experience, I found the recent article by Leaver, Ford, Miller, et al (2020) about the association between handedness and learning in grey squirrels an interesting read.

Red Squirrel in Kananaskis, Alberta
Photo: Tai Munro

The researchers gave wild grey squirrels access to clear tubes containing peanuts. Squirrels would normally grab food with their mouths, so the researchers made the tubes narrow enough that the squirrels couldn’t access the peanuts with their mouths and had to pull the peanuts out with a paw. The researchers tracked the squirrels over multiple interactions so that they could record how quickly the squirrels learned how to get the food out of the tube and see if the squirrels had a paw preference.

The results show a negative relationship between handedness and learning ability, which means that the more an individual squirrel favours using one paw over the other, the longer it took them to figure out the puzzle feeder. The authors thereby suggested that the more strongly dominant a grey squirrel is to one side or the other the more they struggle to solve a novel problem. But here’s the thing I wonder, are the handed squirrels actually slower at learning or are they having to compensate for extra limitations so they actually have a more complex problem to solve?

I think that regardless of the case with squirrels this is an important idea to keep in mind when we think about humans. It’s easy to assume that the first student in a class who puts their hand up to successfully answer a question is the smartest, but do you know what the other students are having to deal with as they solve the problem themselves? Perhaps they are a single mother who is living in a women’s shelter after escaping an abusive relationship (I teach post-secondary), maybe their family had to choose between paying rent and buying food for breakfast, maybe they have been taught that it is impolite to show they know something that others do not… The list of maybes is long and varied.

So, while it may be true that a squirrel with a dominant paw takes longer to learn something new, we should do our best to remember that we don’t always know what, or how another being, be they a non-human or human-animal, is thinking and therefore making judgements about things like their ability to learn, or their intelligence, is perhaps saying more about our intelligence than theirs.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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