Smartphone Users: Right Vs. Left

By Lori Castle, Editor in Chief — June 24, 2013

As the cell phone evolved into the smartphone, the latter half of the word has left the discussion in favor of data, but, after all, people still make calls. Does which hand you hold the phone in say anything about you? Is there a side link to cancer?

If you’re a “left-brain thinker,” according to a study from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, you probably use your right hand to hold your cell phone up to your right ear. In a statement from the Hospital about the study, Michael Seidman, M.D., FACS, director of the division of otologic and neurotologic surgery in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Henry Ford, and one of the authors of the study said, “Our findings have several implications, especially for mapping the language center of the brain.”

Seidman told Mobile Enterprise via email that the study will also be a catalyst for future research around the debate over whether cell phones cause tumors of the brain, head and neck. Since nearly 80% of people use the cell phone in their right ear, according to the findings, he said, if there were a strong connection, there would be far more people diagnosed with cancer on the right side as well.

Right vs. Left
The study showed a strong correlation between brain dominance and the ear used to listen to a cell phone. More than 70% of participants hold their cell phone up to the ear on the same side as their dominant hand, the study finds.
Left-brain dominant people — who account for about 95% of the population and have their speech and language center located on the left side of the brain — are more likely to use their right hand for writing and other everyday tasks.  

Likewise, the Henry Ford study reveals most left-brain dominant people also use the phone in their right ear, despite there being no perceived difference in their hearing in the left or right ear. And, right-brain dominant people are more likely to use their left hand to hold the phone in their left ear.

General psychological theory indicates that the left brain controls language and speech — thus making “righties” more analytical, better with numbers and logic —and the right side, emotion and image processing — thus making “lefties” more creative  and intuitive.

Hold the Phone
The study began with the “simple” observation, which revealed the oddity that most people use their right hand to hold a cell phone to their right ear. This practice, Dr. Seidman said in release, is illogical since it is challenging to listen on the phone with the right ear and take notes with the right hand.

To determine if there is an association between sidedness of cell phone use and auditory or language hemispheric dominance, the team at Henry Ford developed an online survey using modifications of the “Edinburgh Handedness protocol,” a tool used for more than 40 years to assess handedness and predict cerebral dominance.

The survey included questions about which hand was used for tasks such as writing; time spent talking on cell phone; whether the right or left ear is used to listen to phone conversations; and if respondents had been diagnosed with a brain or head and neck tumor.

It was distributed to 5,000 individuals who were either with an otology online group or a patient undergoing Wada and MRI for non-invasive localization purposes.

According to the findings, on average, respondents’ cell phone usage was 540 minutes per month. Ninety percent of respondents were right handed, 9% were left handed and 1% was ambidextrous.

Among those who are right handed, 68% reported that they hold the phone to their right ear, while 25% used the left ear and 7% used both right and left ears. For those who are left handed, 72% said they used their left ear for cell phone conversations, while 23% used their right ear and 5% had no preference.
In all, the study found that there is a correlation between brain dominance and laterality of cell phone use, and there is a significantly higher probability of using the dominant hand side ear.

Benefits of Knowing
According to the Hospital statement, “By establishing a correlation between cerebral dominance and sidedness of cell phone use, it may be possible to develop a less-invasive, lower-cost option to establish the side of the brain where speech and language occurs rather than the Wada test, a procedure that injects an anesthetic into the carotid artery to put part of the brain to sleep in order to map activity.”

Cancer Causing?
When it comes to the effects of cell phone use, according to Dr. Seidman, “There are at least 20 studies out there and most of them say no link between cell phones  and cancer, but there are several studies that suggest that there is indeed an association… we may be in denial regarding the long-term effects.  We just don’t know.”

He provided an analogy to what was once considered a harmless practice. He said, “Some 70 years ago, shoe stores determined fit of shoes with x-ray machines. My mom and dad would turn it on and watch their bones move.  Now we know that this is a problem, but they didn’t know then.”

Since controversy still exists around a potential association of cell phone use and tumors, and until it is fully understood, Dr. Seidman advised in the release that people should use hands-free modes for calls.

He indicated that it’s likely that the development of tumors is more “dose-dependent” based on cell phone usage, but also noted that new studies are underway to look at tumor registry banks of patients with head, neck and brain cancer to evaluate this.  

In a November report from CBS around the link between breast cancer and cell phones, there was some evidence that side does matter. Many women, for lack of a handbag or pocket, store their cell phones tucked under their bra straps. Several women interviewed for the article had breast cancer on the same side where they kept her phone.

What About Texting?
With people using their dominant sides for calling, how are users getting around right vs. left when it comes to texting? Many, in an effort to quickly communicate, use both hands. Was there any observation of this in the Henry Ford study?  Dr. Seidman replied, “A very interesting comment, and frankly I can’t answer it. I am left-handed and more often text with my right hand.”

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