Social distancing is hard. (Not to mention stay-at-home orders and mandatory quarantines, which make social distancing look like patio margaritas on a warm spring day.) Being forced to stay apart from those we know, cut off from our workplaces or usual routines, can set the scene for potential future cases of PTSD and depression, as research on the effects of past shutdowns in countries like China has shown. Social distancing measures are likely not permanent, and that, we can probably all agree, is something to look forward to.
Mandatory social distancing for long periods of time can take an emotional toll, but under normal circumstances, a little distance can often make humans feel more safe and comfortable. We are creatures who, in many ways, crave personal space.
In my pre-pandemic daily life, I would go to yoga class, work remotely from cafés or libraries, and walk my dog for hours in solitude. I thoroughly enjoyed my personal space because I choose it and because I know that if I want to, I can talk to the strangers around me, or call a friend to spend time with. As one of the many people fortunate enough to be able to work from home at this time, my daily routine proceeds mostly unchanged — only now, my coffee shop is my kitchen, my living room is my yoga studio, and when I walk my dog in the park, there’s a hazard-orange STAY THIS FAR APART sign, keeping strangers separated.
Without the safety net of community and social connectedness how and when we choose it, the initial luxury of personal space can become a gloomy chasm. “During a pandemic, social connectedness increases the mental health of people. Attachment theory says we have an evolutionary desire to seek out closeness with people,” says Emily Berger, a lecturer in educational psychology at Monash University in Australia.
“We know from research that quarantining people, or people having inadequate communication around how long they’ll be quarantined, can increase distress and anxiety,” Berger continues. “There’s clearly going to be people who are more socially isolated during these times, those who don’t have the access or ability to use online communication. People need clear and consistent communication from the government around why and how social distancing will work, but most importantly on how to maintain their mental health at this time.”
Without the safety net of community and social connectedness how and when we choose it, the initial luxury of personal space can become a gloomy chasm.
Among neuroscientists, personal space is referred to as “peripersonal space”. The extent of the buffer zone around our bodies, as dictated by our brains, changes in size according to the environment and context we’re in. While the physical distance we want increases when we feel threatened, in times of quarantine and forced isolation, it’s reasonable to want to be near others — in the arms and homes of our friends and loved ones, or at a packed restaurant, the atmosphere diffused with laughter and excitement. Social distancing for the sake of public health is a necessity.
“Many people are huggers or hand shakers. They like to stand and chat in a close space; they like to be with groups of friends and feel a certain amount of human warmth and closeness,” Graziano explans. “The social distancing recommendations violate all of our normal human impulses to show friendliness by shrinking up our personal space and letting other people close.”
Graziano’s research indicates that in the normal context of life, outside of a global pandemic, personal space is healthy and necessary. How much distance we need and want between ourselves and others is calculated subconsciously according to our relationship to those around us and the environment we’re in.
A study in the journal Nature Neuroscience suggests that the amygdala, a region of the brain that regulates emotion, could be involved in determining our particular personal space preferences. In a comparison study between a subject with a damaged amygdala and a small group of control subjects, the control subjects preferred to be an average distance of .64 meters (a little over two feet) from the experimenter — about twice as far as the subject with the damaged amygdala. Separately, brain scans of the control subjects revealed the amygdala region lit up more when an experimenter was standing immediately next to them
A person allows their lover to get close but prefers their boss stay a comfortable distance away. Hormones like cortisol are biological levers that control personal space.
Of course, these boundaries are mutable. Across cultures, the interpersonal distances that are tolerable to individuals differ according to the environment they’re used to, and the neural machinery is constantly adjusting that bubble of personal space as the perceived threat level goes up and down. A commuter in population-dense Tokyo may be more comfortable with less personal space (and presumably deploy less of a stress hormone, like cortisol, if their personal space is invaded) than a farmer in Montana. A person allows their lover to get close but prefers their boss stay a comfortable distance away. Hormones like cortisol are biological levers that control personal space.
The world we live in is always engaged in some simmering, consistent change, but lately, it’s felt like this has been turned up to a boil — surely some of our ways of living will be warped when we’re on the other side of this crisis. Perhaps, living in the public sphere with a newfound awareness of personal space and what it means is a lesson we can all take from this experience.
Graziano doesn’t think people are likely to maintain social distancing when it’s no longer a public health necessity. “I hope not, anyway,” he says. “It’s better for us to be a connected and social species, even with the background threat of possible future diseases. Our personal space, and especially how we shrink personal space and let people come close as a signifier of openness and friendliness, are fundamental to our social health.”