Too Close for Comfort

The scientific study of a person’s sense of personal space may one day lead to ways of treating neurological diseases such as autism.
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Have you been annoyed by people standing too close to you? Do you feel uncomfortable when people stare at you? If you are offended by excessive proximity, you are among the billions of normal people on this planet. If you are not, there may be something abnormal in your brain.

A person’s sense of private space is considered so important that scientists have given a name to its formal study — proxemics. The subject is already throwing up interesting theories and practical applications.

Studies show that our sense of personal space determines a large part of our public behaviour. It is this sense that stops us from staring at others in crowded places, opt for unoccupied rows in a train or bus, or not stand close to another person in a urinal. Also, it enables us to sense danger in people’s expressions. Our sense of personal space — or more accurately, lack of it — could even be linked to some neurological diseases such as autism.

At the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the US, professor of psychology and neuroscience Ralph Adolphs recently found that our sense of personal space resides in a part of the brain called amygdala. This almond-shaped structure is in the medial temporal lobe, equidistant from either ear. The amygdala has been known for over a century but neuroscientists were not interested in it until recently. The region was known to be associated with emotions, but scientists are now learning that it also plays a role in a number of brain disorders.

Adolphs and his team had come across a woman who they prefer to call SM. SM had no sense of personal space, because of which she had got into potentially dangerous situations. She participated in an experiment at Caltech where people were asked to walk towards the experimenter but stop at a distance where they felt comfortable. SM got very close to the experimenter, far closer than anyone else did. The other 20 volunteers stopped at about two feet; SM stopped at one foot. She did not feel uncomfortable even when the noses were about to touch. “She had earlier got into relationships with people whom normal people would not associate with,” says Adolphs.

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Obviously, SM cannot decide whom to trust and is uniformly friendly with everybody she meets. Adolphs then used imaging techniques to determine what part of the brain lit up when people felt uncomfortably close to the experimenter. It was undoubtedly the amygdala. SM had lesions on both sides of the amygdala. Now the team is investigating the relationship of the amygdala, our sense of space and autism. Autistic people have difficulties with personal space and have to be taught its importance.

The experience of SM clearly suggests that our sense of personal space is also a necessary part of a defensive mechanism. She could not recognise fear in the faces of others and could also not judge whether someone is trustworthy, both being abilities that could be related to our sense of personal space. So important and so ingrained is our sense of this space that we carry it even to cyberspace. In experiments performed at Stanford University, scientists had found out that people maintain their sense of personal space even in virtual worlds. Says Nick Yee, former Stanford PhD student and now research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Centre, “When avtars gather in Second Life, they tend to maintain a distance as they do in the real world.”

Second Life is a 3D virtual world where people can create “avtars” who interact just as in the real world. The Stanford Virtual Reality Lab research team, of which Yee was a part, had created algorithms that could analyse the behaviour of avtars in Second Life. The aim of this project was to study virtual environments and not our sense of personal space, but it clearly demonstrated that personal space was important even in virtual worlds.

Around 10 years ago, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, professor Dane Archer videotaped several individuals in situations where they felt their sense of personal space was being violated. These situations involved urinals, libraries and other public places. The videos are now sold by Berkeley Media LLC, a leading distributor of documentaries in the US. The clips show that though people feel their personal space is being violated, their response is to move away rather than confront the aggressor.

Although the term proxemics is only a few decades old (its originator, Edward Hall, passed away this July), the scientific study of personal space is just beginning. It is providing fascinating insights into non-verbal communication. And scientists hope it would one day also lead to ways of treating neurological diseases.

Source:The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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