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Do Women and Left-Handed People Have Better Memories?

Who has a better memory: men or women? What about left-handed people? Musicians? Let's look at the results from evidence-based studies.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #309
brain cartoon of memory

As many families and friend groups across the globe gather to celebrate the holidays and to reminisce about the past, there is a recurring argument that is likely to come up. Who remembers that past more accurately? Your older brother swears he would never have left you alone as a kid to go hang out with his friends, but you remember it differently. So, who is right? And what about your mother: will she ever forget the time she caught you sneaking out of the house? Will she ever remember that lasagna isn’t actually your favorite, its your cousin’s?

We are always looking for ways to improve our memory—vitamins? crossword puzzles? more sleep?—and that desire is reflected in the large number of scientific studies looking for links between characteristics like age or gender and memory performance. Researchers have even looked at brain size, body weight, and hair color to ask, who has the better memory? Let’s take a look at some of the answers to that question that are on the firmest scientific footing.

Do left-handed people have better memories?

You’ve probably heard the conventional wisdom that people are either left brained (driven by logic and reasoning) or right brained (driven by creativity and intuition) depending on which side of their brain is dominant. Although the evidence-based research suggests that people don’t necessarily fit so rigidly into one box, or brain hemisphere, the two sides of the brain are found to be more strongly linked in left-handed people. This greater communication can help with certain types of memory.

In a 2001 study, two scientists asked 62 people to watch as 55 different words flashed on a screen and then, after a delay of a few minutes, to write down what words they could remember.  Now, they did not have enough left-handed people in their study to compare how your dominant hand affects your memory. (Left-handed people make up about 10-15% of the population.) So instead they compared participants who had left-handed relatives against those only related to right-handed people. The scientists found that, whether the participant was left-handed or not, as long as they had left-handed relatives, they on average outscored those from purely right-handed families by a significant margin.

Thus left-handed people, and those of us related to lefties who may have similar brain characteristics, tend to have better episodic memory, the memory for specific events. We can better recall which words we saw a few minutes ago and, more importantly, the events that make us who we are today. No such lefty advantage was seen when the researchers tested factual or semantic memory, or the things you “just know” and don’t always remember learning.

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