How Personal Bubbles Are Formed

Pop! Did you hear that? Well, it was the sound of my personal bubble being intruded. Just when I believed I was comfortable and content with sitting in my normal seat on the school bus, I get an unexpected visit from some other student I don’t know. Even though this stranger seemed to be a completely pleasant person in need of a seat on a crowded, chaotic school bus, I still felt an unshakable discomfort that I would have to hold in for the rest of the ride.

Even though we may not all be wary of this, the strong majority of us have a defined sense of personal space that varies for certain circumstances and interactions. This defined space is also referred to as ones personal bubble.  Whether or not you know it, the intrinsic feeling that you have to not want your bubble to be popped can be explained with the help of a little bit of science. But, before we get into that, here are a few basic aspects that you need to know about personal space and how it is defined by individuals.

5 Bubble basics for beginners

  1. Our perception of personal space can be traced way back to the times of our youth considering that we being to realize it around the age of 3 or 4. Most people’s spatial preferences are locked into place by the time they reach adolescence.
  2. There are different levels of of personal space that our bubbles extend to. Personal space may be classified as intimate, personal, social, or public space in order of increasing distance. These levels may vary from one person to another considering that you may allow your best friend to be closer to you than a regular classmate or coworker.
  3. How we define the extent of our space is dependent on what culture and background we come from. Usually, religion, ethnicity, social structure, beliefs and traditions, and rules all play a factor in how people develop their sense of personal space.
  4. Edward T. Hall, a well known anthropologist, defined personal space in terms of “proxemics”. Based on his concept, we have been able to explain the reasoning behind differences in spatial preferences for individuals. The following are examples of proxemics  that help to justify how cultural differences will vary how personal territory is perceived.
    • Saudi Arabia- Social space standards are reversed from American and western society in which personal space in Saudi Arabia equates to our intimate space. In other words, if you visit Saudi Arabia and engage in conversation with a citizen there, you may find that the other person has come too close into your personal bubble, but that other person may find that you were a little stand offish and distant.
    • Netherlands- Social space standards are reversed from American and western society in which personal space in the Netherlands equates to our social space. In other words, if you visit the Netherlands and engage in conversation with a citizen there, you may find that the other person has was a little stand offish and distant, but that other person may find that you came too close into their personal bubble.
  5. In addition to cultural differences, other factors of a society, such as its population density, contribute to how personal space is perceived. In a relatively smaller country like Japan, population density is surely a factor in defining personal space standards. The population of Japan is approximately half the population of the United States. You would think this would mean that Japanese citizens wouldn’t have close personal space norms, but they do because the size of Japan is about half the size of California. This means that people are more likely to be crammed together causing their personal space standards to be closer than that of those set by American and western standards.

How do our brains make personal bubbles possible?

Our personal bubbles are constantly kept in check and monitored by the area of the brain called the amygdala which is found in the brain’s temporal lobe. This type of nervous tissue is mainly associated with helping individuals to define their perceptions of fear; it also relies on defining individuals’ perception of other emotions, such as anger, sadness, and aggression, to help to prepare for them for emergencies and maintain alertness.

An amygdala interacts with other structures of the body to perform its function. It uses information from sensory systems (ex- auditory, visual, etc) as input to use for output by the amygdala itself. The amygdala helps us form associations with random stimuli that occur around or to us. These associations shape the way an individual perceive future experiences in regard to respective stimuli. For example, hearing the bark of a dog before being bitten by a dog will cause the sound of a bark to act as a source that triggers alertness in future experiences. Responses to stimuli may be seen through, for example, defensive body language such as: crossed arms, frowns and sour facial expressions, slumped posture, and reduced eye contact. Because established stimuli that trigger alertness, the amygdala is activated when others enter too closely (or not closely enough) into someone’s predetermined measure of personal space; these measures are defined by what stimulates fear and alertness in individuals.

Studies and research have been dedicated towards analyzing the amygdala’s role in establishing people’s sense of personal space. The following describe key cases and findings that justify the the nervous tissue’s role:

  • Individuals with autism have difficulty establishing normal distances of social spacing between others.
  • Professor of psychology and neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology, Ralph Adolphs, published research regarding the amygdala and its effects on how we determine our personal space. In the publication, Adolphs and his colleagues confirmed that  most individuals have a strong emotional responses to having others too close to them which is then complemented by the activation of the amygdala. This confirmation was a result of their study of a rare patient who had damage to their amygdala. This damage was a result of a genetic disorder, called the Urbach-Wiethe disease, that hardened and destroyed parts of her temporal lobe. “She felt entirely comfortable no matter how close somebody got to her, and had no apparent personal space,” said Adolphs in regard to the patients awareness of her personal space.

So what, how can I apply this Ambi Sci to my life?

Now that you not only understand general basics of personal bubbles, but also understand the science behind how they work, we can now connect the dots to how this information can help you in your day-to-day life.

If you ever ever find yourself in a situation where your personal bubble is being disturbed, but you are not facing a real threat at all (ex- the riding on the bus example from the beginning of the post), you can choose to:

  • Accept the space intrusion if it isn’t bothering you too much
  • Subtly try to inch away from the other person and hope that they take a hint
  • Verbally address the person and tell them that you are not comfortable

In addition to these methods, another technique that many of us use subconsciously is explained by internationally acclaimed environmental psychologist, Robert Sommer. Sommer suggested that most individuals handle uncomfortable personal space issues by dehumanizing others to that of inanimate objects. This is, for instance, done by avoiding eye contact with others. Also, in these instances, people are more likely to hold emotionless faces so that they are able to easily mask their uncomfort. While this technique may work for some, others may not find it fitting to how they like to handle these situations.

In addition to making sure that our personal space isn’t violated, we also need to ensure that others’ that we encounter are comfortable and do not feel violated. This is done by following social space etiquette. Even though there are many rules that go into making sure one follows the proper social space etiquette, the most general rule to follow would be to make sure that you are aware of how others respond to how close you are to them. In other words, if you notice a negative amygdala response from someone kicking in, go ahead and back up a little (or get a little closer if it’s a cultural norm!)

It is vital that you understand the value and significance of your own personal bubble as well as others- both in their scientific workings and in real life situations. Doing so is just one way to make sure you respect others and respect yourself.

Thanks for tuning in, and I hope this post is super helpful and informative to you in your journey to an Ambi-Sci Life. So, remember to let your ambience shine from within with help from inspiring science posts by checking out more on this site 😀



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