Hi, I’m Amy Gdala: Doctors Isolate Part of the Brain that Recognizes Appropriate Distance Between People

225px-Times_Square_112808(2)128px-AmygIt 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:

For the full story, click here.

11 thoughts on “Hi, I’m Amy Gdala: Doctors Isolate Part of the Brain that Recognizes Appropriate Distance Between People”

  1. Slightly off topic:

    Does that picture of the brain on the right look like an angry platypus to anyone else?

  2. Upon whom was this experiment carried out? I ask this only to raise the issue of culture. It is well known that different cultures have a different set of physical boundaries for what is and is not personal space. The American personal space boundary, for example, is larger than in the middle east. Just curious about that factor and how the study might have accounted for it.

  3. AY,

    Any reference to the amygdala here refers to the patient in question as contrasted to “normal” test controls. I mean this in the best possible way, but there is nothing normal about your amygdala or indeed some of the other pieces parts. In the immortal words of Dr. Froderick Fronk-en-steen, “Ah! Very good. Would you mind telling me whose brain I DID put in?”

    Smack. Kiss, kiss.

  4. After reading the article, my question is since the amygdala seems to have a role in processing social threat assessment and the fear response is does it play a role in other non-social fight or flight scenarios?

    While the role in social interaction is interesting in itself, should the amygdala prove to have an even more central role in threat assessment/fear, that could have long reaching medical and legal implications for how to deal with not just socio-/psychopathic criminals but other high risk behaviors as well.

    In hindsight, that social fear is related to proximity suggests to me that what role the amygdala plays in non-social fear processing is an avenue worth exploring.

    Best case, we end up with better treatment and incarceration techniques. Worst case, we get an Office of Genetic Pre-Crime. But we can’t make a mistake in application until we uncover the underlying scientific principles.

  5. So this is why I don’t care for people to be in my space. Now I know. What about them driving on the same road way? Parking on my side of the street? Humm, I need some therapy to here comes the Avalanche:

  6. See Buddha,

    You are just not worthy to post here. You are a world class amygdala. You are not an Original Turlee and you should know better than to post such gibberish.

    It is my sincere desire when I wake in the morning to be annoying. I live for that first morning breath of the annoying dew. So with that, my day is all set. However, my amygdala is annoying to some.

  7. “extensive damage to her amygdala, the part of the pain known to help process strong negative emotions.”

    While brains can be pains, pains don’t necessarily have an amygdala.

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