Asymmetry is when two sides of a thing are out of whack, like the male Fiddler Crab’s pincers. They eat with the tiny one and use the big one to wave at females.
There are two types of imbalance we hear about among humans. The most obvious one is that most of us are either right-handed or left-handed (only 1% of us are truly ambidextrous). For centuries, left-handedness was seen as the mark of the devil. In Italian, the word left-handed is the source of our English word for sinister. The handshake was originally a gesture to show that I am holding no weapons. As nine out of ten people are right-handed, both strangers would extend their empty right hands to show they were unarmed. This gave sinister left-handed people an advantage because they could hide a knife behind their back, grab and immobilize the extended hand of the unwary with their right hand, and stab them with their dominant left hand. Today our word sinister means evil, threatening, and ominous.
The human brain has two sides.
While the left and right hemispheres look pretty much alike, the two sides of our brains have long been said to perform different functions. The left brain/right brain philosophy says each of us has one side of our brain that is more dominant than the other. Psychobiologist Roger Sperry’s Nobel prize-winning split-brain theory says the left brain is more logical and analytical, while the right brain is more intuitive and artistic. The left brain thinks in words and deals with facts and mathematics while the right brain thinks in pictures and deals with feelings and the arts. The left brain is rational and the right brain is emotional. As with many theories, ongoing research continues to find less and less support for separate left-brain and right-brain activities, but the belief that people are left-brained or right-brained still exists, as does the notion that some people are birdbrained, harebrained, and scatterbrained.
Let’s look at the human body’s asymmetry.
Most of the time we don’t notice our mismatched sides, but when we look carefully, we can see them quite clearly. Our left and right sides are nearly equal except for extreme examples like tennis pro Rod Laver. His dominant left arm was so much larger than his right arm that people said he appeared to be deformed. This “deformity” was not the result of nature, but the consequence of playing so much tennis one-handed for so many years. Many of us have one leg longer than the other, but the difference is usually so slight as to go unnoticed. Women are more keenly aware than men how left and right breasts vary in size, shape, and location.
Our ears are often at different heights relative to our faces.
Men’s sideburns often appear to be lopsided because they’re trimmed relative to the neighboring ear. Our noses are usually bent a little bit one way or another, too. This imbalance is a problem for eyeglass wearers because our glasses rest on our imperfectly located ears and noses.
What does bilateral asymmetry have to do with research?
At first glance human faces look balanced to us. But as we look more closely, we see some real imbalances. This is most obvious when our hair is parted on one side, like Cary Grant, or hangs down over one eye, like Veronica Lake. Other imbalances are more subtle and we have to look at things from a different perspective to be able to see them.
As I arrived at my destination, there was a crowd gathered out front watching workmen with a crane lowering a huge statue into place in front of their new World Headquarters. After greeting my C-level client, I took him aside and reminded him there will be lots of photos taken from in front of the building and it is likely one will appear on the cover of the Annual Report. Visitors will come up the beautifully landscaped boulevard, too, so let’s walk around to the other side and see how it will look to visitors and in photographs and news items. We saw how from the external perspective, the statue was facing in the wrong direction. As planned – or rather, not planned – it would appear backwards to everyone that is not in the building. The way someone is trying to install it now unintentionally sends the wrong messages. The way it is aimed now is for the benefit of the employees and not the customers. The way it is aimed now is inner-focused rather than customer-focused and tells people your thinking is backwards, too. He halted the installation and instructed the workmen to turn it around so it faced outward from the building.
Few people are familiar with the field of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and how people interpret them.
Semiotics was defined by one of its founders, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, as the study of “the life of signs within society.” Everyone I’ve ever had a conversation with about semiotics gets the point that our world is full of underlying messages that operate on subconscious levels and trigger unintended consequences.
Signs (and symbols and statues) communicate intended and unintended meanings.
Today we all know that red lights mean stop and green lights mean go. We also know the red light is at the top and the green light is at the bottom. The colorblind don’t see the color green, but they do interpret the illuminated topmost light at the intersection as meaning “stop” and the illuminated bottommost light as meaning “go.”
In the early days of electric traffic signals, the top-to-bottom placement of red, yellow, and green lights was typical, but not standardized. One unintended consequence was the high number of collisions at intersections where the green GO light was at the top and the red STOP light was at the bottom.
Many drivers who were not colorblind had interpreted the bottom light as meaning “go,” an unintended message that operated on subconscious levels and triggered unintended consequences. What messages are people in your company sending that pay no attention to how people interpret them?
On a lighter side, try this bilateral asymmetry experiment on yourself.
- Take a selfie facing directly into the lens.
- Drop your photo into Keynote or PowerPoint or whatever.
- Take a screenshot that divides your face into left and right halves.
- Duplicate the left half of your face. (Keynote users: Command+D)
- Flip it over (Keynote users: Click Arrange on toolbar. Click Flip Horizontally from the drop-down menu).
- Adjust your real left to be snugly aligned with your just-flipped left.
- Repeat steps 4, 5, and 6 with the image of the right half of your face.
- Send your best (worst?) to a friend and attach this article. Writers love readers.