Confusing Left-Right, Not Politics But The Brain

Confusing the left and right is merely an annoying “brain quirk” for many people with ADHD. But for police officer Johannes Mehserle it might have led to point-blank fatally shooting a man.

Mehserle is the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer who shot an unarmed Oscar Grant. The young man had minutes before had been removed from the mass-transit car for unruly behavior on New Year’s Day of 2010. Grant was being physically held by Mehserle.  One news report, including footage of the shooting, is featured below. The Wikipedia entry on the incident is here.

Mehserle contended that he was reaching for his taser (holstered on the left side of his body) to subdue Grant. Instead, he actually reached for his gun (on the right side of his body) and shot King.

Much of the public is incredulous. It’s impossible that he could have made such a grievous error.  And maybe this has nothing to do with left-right confusion or ADHD. I can’t say. But I have heard many stories over the years from people with ADHD who struggle to cope with remembering left from right.

There is no getting around that a young man was tragically, unnecessarily killed. Yet, there is also no getting through to some people that this might truly have been a grievous accident and not a racist-inspired intentional murder.  Brain dysfunction is the “elephant in the room” of our society on so many levels. Fear and inadequate training adds another set of dangerous variables.

Years ago, when I was first learning about ADHD, I met a woman at a party. She told me that her lifelong dream of being a firefighter was quashed for one reason only.  She repeatedly confused clockwise from counter-clockwise − an unacceptable confusion for someone trusted to affix fire hoses properly.

She didn’t seem to connect it to ADHD, but I learned enough about the rest of her life to think it was a clear possibility. I made a mental note to research it further.

Over the years, I’ve heard many other people with ADHD express frustration over their left-right confusion. (One friend’s efforts at rock-climbing were foiled because he could not keep left-right straight in his mind when tying the ropes.)

Is this an “ADHD thing?”  I don’t know. But it does seem to be a common “brain thing.” More importantly, anecdotal reports from my friends with ADHD indicate that their neurospatial abilities improved with medication treatment.

One study from the International Journal of Neuroscience showed that “71 of 364 (19.5%) college professors and 311 of 1185 (26.2%) college students said that they occasionally, frequently or all of the time had difficulty when they had to quickly identify right from left.”  Test your own acumen at distinguishing right from left with the researchers’ online quiz.

I’ve watched the video (captured by a citizen on the subway’s platform) several times. I try to put all other issues aside, including social conditioning.  I wanted to see only his actions and expression.  From what I saw, it seems that no one was more surprised than Mehserle to learn that, in fact, he shot Grant with his gun instead of firing the taser. Here is an excerpt from Mehserle’s motion for bail:

[Fellow BART officer] Pirone said he told Grant “Stop resisting, you’re under arrest, put your hands behind your back.”

At that time Pirone said he heard Mehserle say, “Put your hands behind your back, stop resisting, stop resisting, put your hands behind your back.”

Then Mehserle said, “I’m going to taze him, I’m going to taze him. I can’t get his arms. He won’t give me his arms. His hands are going for his waistband.” Then Mehserle popped up and said, “Tony, Tony, get away, back up, back up.”

Pirone did not know if Grant was armed. Mehserle had fear in his voice. Pirone had never heard Mehserle’s voice with that tone. Mehserle sounded afraid.

Next Mehserle stood, reached for his gun, and shot into Grant’s back. Mehserle appeared surprised and raised his hands to his face. According to his criminal defense attorney, several eyewitnesses described Mehserle as “looking stunned” and said he repeated  “Oh my god!” several times after the shooting and raised his hands to his head.

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23 thoughts on “Confusing Left-Right, Not Politics But The Brain”

  1. Hello Gina, Thank you for the article. I found this in searching for….. In the third grade, I was diagnosed with ADHD and was made to switch from left-handed to right-handed. It was not popular to be left-handed in that era. Lots of people were made to switch by their parents or teachers…I am 37. So Third Grade was 1996? .. There are several studies about it and what it can cause. I didn’t know about the hand switch until about 10 years ago. I was talking to my dad about how good my mom’s handwriting was and how terrible mine and his are. I have always known about ADHD symptoms.

    Regarding the Stuides of being switched handwriting hands, I have or did have all those symptoms.

    That being said I do sometimes struggle with right and left. I don’t think as much as some of the other people in the comments. However, I was just curious if you had done any studies on people with ADHD who had also been switched from left to right-handed.

    1. Hi Nicole,

      1996? I thought that awful practice was stopped many decades before!

      I’ve heard of no studies of people who’s preferred hand for writing was switched to the other hand. Sorry./


  2. I normally do not comment on blogs which I’m unacquainted with, but I stumbled upon this and feel it’s necessary, even if this is unlikely to be read due to the age of the article (2+ years). Everything I write here is based of a surface level understanding of this scenario.

    I have severe combined ADHD, as well as Tourettes; you can imagine my physical disorientation. I constantly confuse left and right. However, through merely my sense of touch I’d be able to quickly distinguish a taser from a gun; which are not even remotely similar in size, shape and usage. It is almost incomprehensible that someone can go to the length of pulling the distinctly tough metallic trigger of a gun believing it to be a button-operated taser of a different material; even in the most zoned-out or drugged-up state of mind, the sheer gravity of a guns’ fatal precedent should offset that.

    Obviously I cannot be an authority on whether this was truly a ‘mistake’ or not. But this was a man entrusted to remain impartial and responsible within a position of great power, and he violated that trust by exercising his ability to casually deal death with no restraint whatsoever, with a weapon that should only be deployed in the most exceptionally dangerous of circumstances. He had training and experience. For that you should negate the same benefit of doubt given to any otherwise ordinary person.

    This is also not the only time the excuse of “confusing gun and taser” has been used. Not too long ago, another officer fatally shot an unarmed person. For such a grave error to occur on multiple occasions pushes the boundaries of realism.

    I did watch the video. The body language demonstrated by the officer spoke aggression. If there was any shock, it could just as easily be down to grasping the gravity of the situation whilst the blindfolds of anger recede. “I’m going to taze him” could’ve been said to premeditate this excuse.

    I live in the UK and these scenes on New Years’ Eve are common and usually dealt with as such: police officers will calm down and possibly restrain a confrontational and highly inebriated individual, disperse any conflict, before driving them home to safety to ensure they aren’t in danger. If an individual is overdosing, they will be immediately taken to hospital. If an individual continues to be violent, they will detain them until morning for their own safety – and once the day rolls around, they’ll possibly recieve a caution before being sent home (as long as no charges are filed).

    There’s unfortunately a dichotomy between this approach and the brute force of police elsewhere, particularly the US, and I can’t imagine having to live with this injustice.

    1. Hi Fenix,

      I appreciate your perspective and specific points.

      I did not offer this with an idea of “excusing” the person — but of bringing attention to brain issues that can interfere with behavior, especially in high-pressure situations.

      I am looking just at his expression and actions, not projecting my thoughts about what should/shouldn’t be happening, how training meant he had no chance of doing this except intentionally, etc..

      The UK is not the U.S.. You don’t have an over-proliferation of guns on the street. Imagine how any kind of police officer feels walking out the door every morning to go to work, knowing it might be the day they die.

      One well-liked police officer died here yesterday — well, he was murdered. He was responding to a domestic violence call and was shot. Not an isolated incident.

      Complex issues require complex thought. It’s very easy to slam down the moralistic hammer. There can even be a bit of self-medicating with self-righteousness to it.

      But it doesn’t solve complex problems.

      It’s little talked-about except within police forces — and that is, the over-representation of ADHD.

      Folks who didn’t do well in school, who like “action”, who like to feel they are protector or heroes or “getting the bad guy” might be more motivated than others to join the force, especially given the benefits. If they don’t seriously consider the high potential for death or maiming.

      So, you have officers who might act impulsively in high-stress situations, who over-interpret threat (a very real risk with untreated ADHD), and go into survival mode.

      No amount of training in the abstract is going to counter that kind of in-the-moment behavior.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. I have always had trouble with Left/Right. But I also say “deck” when I mean “dock”, “dorsal” when I mean “Ventral”. So anytime there is an opposite, especially with direction, I automatically go to the wrong choice. I try to stop and think, but when I am taking a practical (hands-on exam in health field), I consistently perform the opposite action when my instructor gives me a direction. It is frustrating and sometimes embarrassing. BTW I am a 58 year old retired teacher going back to school.

    1. Hi Leandra,

      That sounds horribly frustrating. And I see the distinction in what you experience, from “simply” left-right confusion.

      Your mind immediately goes to the opposite in a pair.

      If you have ADHD-related challenges in major areas of life, it might explain something. Or it just might be a quirk of your brain.

      I do know that teaching my husband “rightie tightie lefty loosey” has helped him assist me in plumbing repairs. 🙂

      Good luck going back to school!


  4. My problem is that I do have to stop to think about my left and right, but the main problem for me is direction. For example, Simon Says. Someone turns facing you, and they say right. When they put up their right hand, it looks as if they put up their left hand. Now I’m forever confused.

    1. Hi Random,

      Yes, I suppose what is direction but complex left-and-right? 🙂

      What you describe seems the challenge my husband had in watching our Salsa dance instructor and trying to re-create. 🙂


  5. Honestly, I haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD. I just wanted to find out if people struggle with left/right confusion late into their life, but after seeing common tells for ADHD…it makes me suspicious.

    1. Hi Sarah,

      It might be worth checking out the typical ADHD-related challenges to see if it’s a fit.

      Otherwise, these challenges are not limited to people with ADHD. They can be found in many other humans, though to a lesser degree or at least a less impairing degree.


    2. I am 56 and still struggle with left-right confusion, particularly when under stress. I have not been diagnosed with ADHD. I have had this issue since childhood. Over the years, I have discovered clever ways to help cover up for this quirk because I was always troubled by it.

      If driving and someone yells at me to suddenly make a right or left, I freeze. I won’t which way to turn (L, R decals help). I do math well enough, but if you tell me to divide 5 into 10, I don’t know which numbers goes into which. I have to process the relationship between the numbers and then get the answer. In grade school, math terrified me. There I was at the board in front of the class, being asked to make a calculation, when stress arrived to interfere and embarrass me. I created solutions for math that has seen me get As in my electronics and math classes.

      Only last week did I discover that there was a name for my issue and that it is indeed a thing!

    3. Hi Helena,

      I guess answers late are better than answers never! 🙂

      My husband had this issue pretty strongly before starting ADHD treatment. Now, I don’t think it’s an issue at all.

      Fascinating thing, our human brain!


  6. Danielle Jordache

    I cannot tell my left from my right without having to think a few moments about it. I also get lost easily and have to use tricks like squeezing my right or left hand when doing drill (yes, I am in the military) on the word of command as this seems to bypass having to think about what left or right means. I may not know but my body knows. Then I just follow the hand that responds.

    But…even with all that I do not confuse what object I have on my body. I know when I carry a C7,C6 or C9. You train with your weapons until they can be used without thinking. You don’t think about left or right when you do your weapons drills, you just do them. I am not saying it’s impossible he got confused, but if so he was not properly trained or familiar with his weapons. It’s a pretty serious error and I don’t feel it’s believable. You not only have to pull a weapon out, you normally have to take other steps, perhaps cock your weapon or take it off safe. I’m not familiar with police procedure but unless their weapons are always ready to fire, taking any steps to prepare to shoot would force him to realize he didn’t have a taser. He may have pulled his gun and shot without thinking, and that surprised him. That going into auto-pilot in a crisis situation. No excuse, just more likely to me than confusing where your weapons are on your body. As a soldier, I don’t buy it.

    1. I appreciate your sharing your perspective, Danielle. I would only point out that Mehserle is not a trained military person; he is a BART policeman.

      I offered the right-left confusion only a possible explanation and to bring attention to the phenomenon as experienced by m any people with ADHD. You say to have experienced the same confusion.

      Whatever can be said about how this happened, watching the video makes it clear to me that he did not shoot the man on purpose; something else was transpiring. Apparently, the judge agreed.

  7. Sharron Clemons

    From my own experience with two sons, I believe there to be some truth to the left-right confusion link to ADD. Both of my sons had trouble with being able to tell right from left as young children and my 11 year old still confuses the two. He’s also had difficulty with confusing p’s with q’s and b’s with d’s as well as the top/bottom confusion of u’s with n’s. He’s been tested for dyslexia and other learning difficulties and they’ve all been eliminated. Thanks for disseminating this theory to others.

    1. Hi Sharron,
      Thanks for weighing in. Maybe we will build critical mass here. 😉


  8. disappointed

    Sorry, but no.

    A taser feels nothing like a gun. It is almost half the weight and brightly colored. Mehserle also changed his story several times before deciding on the left-right confusion. Also, with four officers restraining Grant, there was absolutely no reason to use a taser. (His last words were “I surrender.”) I enjoy reading your blogs, and am disappointed that you are trying to make excuses for this murderer.

    1. HI disappointed. Sorry that you are.

      All that you say is true — and yet a jury and judge decided the case, finding that Mehserle did not intentionally shoot Grant. How do you square this?

      The video I viewed shortly after the even clearly showed Mehserle’s shock of surprise. He looked as surprised as anyone (or more) at what he’d done. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find that video; perhaps I saw it on the local news and it’s not available on YouTube.)

      Why would Mehserle intentionally shoot Grant in the back? It makes no sense on any level.

      As I said, this is a tragic event. From his mother’s report, Grant was starting to turn his life around and he had a new baby (as did Mehserle, born the day after the shooting).

      I cannot say that Mehserle has ADHD, but I can say that my knowledge of ADHD and especially this left-right confusion among many people with or without ADHD lends credence to Mehserle’s explanation. No doubt even he found it implausible, not to mention embarrassing.

      This is what happens when we don’t understand the frailties of the human brain, in ourselves or other people.

  9. I’m the same way with getting lost, Jeff. My spouse actually bought me a GPS last year because I get lost so often and I don’t have the common sense to call for directions.

  10. I don’t think I have much of a left-right confusion (well…maybe…I have to think “Which hand do I write with?” and only then can I tell right from left). But I *do* get lost in a paper bag and even within the small town I live in, I sometimes need to use a GPS to get around.

  11. From my own experience with two sons, I believe there to be some truth to the left-right confusion link to ADD. Both of my sons had trouble with being able to tell right from left as young children and my 11 year old still confuses the two. He’s also had difficulty with confusing p’s with q’s and b’s with d’s as well as the top/bottom confusion of u’s with n’s. He’s been tested for dyslexia and other learning difficulties and they’ve all been eliminated. Thanks for disseminating this theory to others.

    1. Thanks for your story, Sue. I hope to find time so I can dig into the research more deeply. This might be another one of those “cross-disciplinary” gaps, like CAPD and sleep apnea.

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