Life Science Blog

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

Scientists pinpoint the region of the brain that controls your comfort zone.

September 12, 2009

The Police and your brain may sing the same tune, at least when it comes to personal space. Neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology recently discovered that the amygdalae, the almond-sized structures in your brain that control emotional responses, also play an important role in social skills.

A unique patient helped make the connection. The researchers had been working with a woman whose amygdalae were damaged — lesions in her brain had essentially turned off the emotion-driving organs. Over time, the group noticed something: “She is extremely friendly, and she wants to approach people more than normal,” said Daniel Kennedy, a co-author on the study, which appeared in the August 30 issue of Nature Neuroscience.

The woman’s gregariousness also impacted her sense of personal space. The scientists found that she felt comfortable standing much closer to another person than people with healthy amygdalae did. To confirm their hunch, they scanned a number of patients’ brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The healthy patients’ amygdalae lit up when someone was nearby, but the woman’s did not. Scientists know that the amygdalae control emotions such as anger and fear, but no one had ever tied them to face-to-face social interactions.

Culture and setting also shape our bubbles. People from different countries often have different ideas of personal space; it can even vary from rural to urban areas. And in a rush-hour subway car, forget it. Just turn off your amygdalae and enjoy the ride.

Related on Scienceline:

Contemplating Oneness: The Neuroscience of Meditation

Extreme Psychology

Greening Brain Waves

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