It turns out that your “personal space” is all in your head. There is a fascinating story in the current issue of Nature involving the ability of human to sense and maintain proper “personal space.” Researchers at Caltech found a woman who had extensive damage to her amygdala, the part of the brain known to help process strong negative emotions. They discovered that she not only had difficult in recognizing fear in the faces of others but had no less of a sense of “personal space.”
In my torts class, I teach privacy doctrines and cases. As part of these classes, we discuss that quintessentially American phrase “you are in my space” or the more acute situation warranting the warning “get out of my face.” People have a fascinating sense of space around them that expands and contracts under different circumstances. You are not as aggrieved by someone touching you in a packed elevator or train. However, in an empty elevator such contact is quite upsetting (Now, you can say “what is your problem? Do you have a fully functional amygdala?”). This creates novel questions in intentional torts and privacy as to unreasonable or offensive contacts.
There may be a physical explanation. The subject, a woman who is 42 and called SM, offered Dr. Ralph Adolphs, a unique insight into the function of this part of the brain.
In a test with 20 volunteer, subjects were asked to walk toward a researcher and stop at the point where they feel most comfortable. The average preferred distance was about 2 feet. SM, however, preferred about 1 foot.
The breakthrough regarding the damaged amygdala is reminiscent of Mr. Phineas Gage, who allowed doctors to understand the role of the cerebral cortex when much of it was blown away in a freak accident. A railroad worker, Gage had a tamping iron blown through his head. While it damage much of this area of the brain, he survived. However, he experienced powerful changes in personality — allowing doctors to isolate the role of that part of the brain. in the left and right prefrontal cortex.
It appears that humans are not the only species with a sense of personal space:
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