By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
“I want to be alone!” How many times, like Greta Garbo, have you uttered that phrase, or at least thought it? We live in a world of shrinking personal space and vanishing privacy. Every day someone stands a little too close to you in line, making your stress levels rise, or you get stuck in a slow elevator with too many people. When you get home you trip over your spouse and kids as you try to fix dinner in your too-small apartment. You want to tell the world to back off but you’re powerless. Everyone is invading your personal space, and it’s having a big impact on your health.
Personal Space Bubbles are Popping
The American anthropologist Edward Hall said in the 1960s that we go through life surrounded by “bubbles” of personal space of four different sizes, each of which applies to a different set of people.
The inner bubble is the “intimate” space and it stretches up to 18 inches away from the face.
The next bubble goes out a further 2- 21/2 feet to reach 4 feet away from you and is termed “personal” space. The zone of “social” space stretches from 4 to 12 feet away, and after that it’s “public” space.
In addition to our physical "social" bubbles, we also have --- and protect --- abstract bubbles of privacy. These zones of privacy cover all the things that we choose not to share with the wider world --- our bank account statements, tax returns, sexual histories, our true fears and innermost thoughts. Protection of our abstract personal privacy spaces is the reason we react with anger and revulsion when we are being watched by anyone, including Big Brother. (Read more about the health effects of being watched.)
Intimate partners and family are accepted within the inner bubble. But what happens when the guy at the ATM invades your “intimate” space? Or a distant friend steps in too close?
Get Away from My Amygdala!
According to Ralph Adolphs at the California Institute of Technology we begin to develop our sense of personal space at the age of 3 or 4. His research in 2009 shows that the bubbles are constructed by the "amygdala", a pair of almond-shaped regions in the brain involved in fear.
Evolution seems to have created this brain structure to prevent another person getting so close to you they could harm you or take away food. Adolphs in 2009 demonstrated how a woman with damaged amygdala did not feel intimidated or uncomfortable even when a researcher was standing nose-to-nose with her.
For the rest of us with undamaged amygdala, situations where people come too close are increasingly common in everyday life but it seems that the evolutionary response causes us to panic and want to hide. We need a place to retreat to --- every woman needs a "room of her own" and every man needs a "man cave".
Anxious People Need More Personal Space
Scientists put an accurate distance on how much personal space we need - 8 to 16 inches (between 20 and 40 centimeters) surrounding the face, according to 2013 research from University College London, UK.
This “peripersonal space” is a physical limit, beyond which people suffer stress and anxiety when someone encroaches. Researchers also found that people with anxiety needed greater peripersonal space, suggesting that anxious individuals may perceive threats as closer to their body than they actually are.
City Living Destroys Our Personal Space
In the crowded physical environment of a city, it is no surprise that there are constant invasions into this peripersonal space.
But these invasions can cause health problems. In 2011 a study from the University of Heidelberg in Germany showed that the brains of people living in cities operate differently from those in rural places. The area of the brain responsible for the regulation of emotion and anxiety becomes overactive in city-dwellers when they become stressed.
Guess what? This area of the brain is the amygdala, suggesting that personal space invasion could be implicated in the different stress responses of the city people.
Work can be a problem when you have little privacy and are forced to share a messy desk with a colleague.
When you feel crowded you perform less well at tasks, according to a 1991 study from Dayalbagh Educational Institute, Agra, India. This study showed that complex task performance was adversely affected by high-density rooms. We need elbow room to think clearly.