It’s 9 AM – rush hour on the metro. The platform is packed and the people of France know very little regarding personal space. As the offensive warning of door closure sounds, it’s as if the lid to a tightly packed sardine tin is being jammed shut. Looking around, the only person that might give you a smile is the baby in the stroller, the rest adorn deadpan expressions, chatter is low, and the screech of the metro rings through my ears. As a man stands on my foot and the hair of the woman in front of me grazes across my lips, the words “excusez-moi” or “pardon” fail to be uttered. It is a way of life and, honestly, I was probably in the way.
This unapologetic lack of personal space can be attributed to the amygdala based on an fMRI study done by Kennedy et al. (2009). A bilateral lesion of the amygdala resulted in very little regard to personal space. The amygdala plays a role in strong emotional responses and in this case, in regards to the proximity to others. In this experiment, a patient with bilateral lesions of the amygdala felt comfortable with an individual at a significantly closer distance than a healthy individual reported. Given my experience on the metro, I predict that my amygdala activity was quite high.
In another study done by Graziano and Cooke (2006), it was found that the ventral intraparietal area (VIP) and a polysensory zone in the precentral gyrus (PZ) both respond to objects that are touching or looming toward the body’s surface. These areas give rise to the ‘personal space bubble’ that most of us cherish in the United States. In fact, stimulation of these areas can result in defensive behavior such as avoidance or blocking maneuvers (Graziano and Cooke, 2006). My New Englander mentality reports that a quick elbow nudge or jerk of my foot from beneath my fellow passenger’s may send the message of my discontent but, apparently not.
In a different context, in a study of Borderline Personality Disorder patients, amygdala and parietal cortex activation of patients was lower than baseline when in close proximity to others (Schienle et al., 2015). Invasion into the subject’s ‘personal bubble’ was simulated by zooming in on pictures of facial expressions. Borderline Personality Disorder patients only showed increased activation in these areas if the facial expression showed disgust. Otherwise, there was very little concern with a lack of personal space in comparison to the control patients.
Perhaps the French have evolved to have lower activation in the amygdala and parietal cortex? Just food for thought. Either way, I know that I’m certainly not used to it and for about 35 minutes on the metro (and many other places) I feel like my bubble has been popped. Everything and everyone is about 5 inches closer to my body than it should be…but maybe my amygdala and parietal cortex will adapt as the weeks go on!
Graziano MSA, Cooke DF (2006) Parieto-frontal interactions, personal space, and defensive behavior. Neuropsychologia 44: 845-859. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2005.09.009
Kennedy DP, Gläscher J, Tyszka JM, Adolphs R (2009) Personal space regulation by the human amygdala. Nature Neuroscience 12: 1226-1227. doi: 10.1038/nn.2381
Schienle A, Wabnegger A, Schöngassner F, Leutgeb L (2015) Effects of personal space intrusion in affective contexts: an fMRI investigation with women suffering from borderline personality disorder. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 10(10): 1424–1428. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv034