You Need Your Personal Space

October 24, 2019

The term “personal space” is relatively new—but that uneasy feeling you get when someone moves too close is ancient.

The brain computes a buffer zone around the body.” We have this “second skin” hardwired into our DNA.

When National Geographic caught up with Graziano at Princeton University, he explained Donald Trump’s unusual sense of personal space, why we wouldn’t be able to use tools without this second skin, and how his own family discovered that being born without a buffer zone can have devastating consequences.

The news is full of stories of men inappropriately touching women or invading their personal space. What can neuroscience tell us about these issues?

Not just neuroscience. The psychology of studying personal space, or “peripersonal space” as it is known, tells us there really is such a thing. The brain computes a buffer zone around the body, which is very flexible. It changes in size, depending on context, computed in a manner that’s largely unconscious.

We can’t help it. It’s part of the scaffold of how we interact socially, on which all of our social interactions are built. It has a huge impact on the way we react to each other, understand each other, and feel about each other.

When you talk about inappropriately touching another person, that is a huge invasion of personal space. It takes relatively special social circumstances before it feels comfortable to be touched by someone. Even just sidling up too close to another person can be an invasion of that personal space. It has a very real impact on people.

The invisible second skin is primarily protection. It has a huge range of functions. It can be as basic as protecting you against an actual physical threat, like a predator. It was first studied in the 1950s with animals that had a personal space or “flight zone” around them, which they compute to protect themselves from predators.

It can also protect us in the simplest way from the objects all around us in everyday life, like walking through a doorway without bashing your shoulder on it. We don’t even think about it because we have this system that’s unconsciously monitoring where things are and adjusting our movements. In humans and other animals, it also has this huge social component to maintain a buffer between one individual and another.

It is generally assumed that dominant individuals have a larger personal space. Tell us about President Kennedy’s “30-foot rule”—and why the present inhabitant of the White House contradicts the theory.

The idea that a dominant individual has the larger personal space is probably a mistake. President Kennedy’s 30-foot rule showed up in a book in the 1960s about personal space by Edward Hall. Hall described how President Kennedy was always surrounded by floods of people but there was always a bubble around him of about 30 feet and only a very few people were allowed into that bubble. But this was probably not his personal space but rather the 30-foot nervous, personal space of all the people who were near him. They kept that distance from him.

Trump is very grabby and handsy in general. [Laughs] When you see him with dignitaries, he’s very comfortable reaching out, grabbing people’s hands, putting his arm around them. This is a guy whose defensive bubble is very small. He’s not intimidated by other people.

That’s classic. The idea that higher status or alpha males have a larger personal space is not true. It’s that everyone else has a larger space with respect to that person and therefore clears the space around that person.

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