“Personal space” that causes stress when invaded, can be measured.

The relationship between anxiety and personal space is well researched and everyone has their own definition of what that space is and when it is invaded. To-date, researchers have believed that ‘peripersonal space’ has gradual boundaries, but a new study published in the latest Journal of Neuroscience says there are measurable, physical limits.

A team of researchers, led by Dr. Chiara F. Sambo and Dr. Gian Domenico Lannetti, from the Department of Neuroscience, University College London, explained that while the defensive peripersonal space represents a “safety margin” advantageous for survival, “its spatial extension and the possible relationship with personality traits have never been investigated.”

The UCL team measured the defensive peripersonal space of 15 healthy people aged 20 to 37 by applying an electrical stimulus to a specific nerve in the hand, which causes the subject to blink― the involuntary hand-blink reflex (HBR). This reflex was monitored with the subject holding their own hand at 4, 20, 40 and 60 cm away from the face. The magnitude of the reflex was used to determine how dangerous each stimulus was considered, and a larger response for stimuli further from the body indicated a larger DPPS. Subjects also completed an anxiety test to classify them as more or less anxious. Both test results were compared to establish if there was a link between them.
Researchers found that “the defensive peripersonal space has a sharp boundary, located between 20 and 40 cm from the face” and within that space there is a thin, “highest-risk area” closest to the face ― an “ultra-near” defensive space. There were also “clear inter-individual differences in the extension of such peripersonal space. These differences are positively related to individual variability in trait anxiety.”

Dr. Lannetti commented that this is “the first objective measure of the size of the area surrounding the face that each individual considers at high-risk, and thus wants to protect through the most effective defensive motor responses.”

The findings could be used to test risk assessment abilities in professions that require quick reactions to aversive stimuli near the body, such as firemen, policemen, and military officers. It may also lead to interventions to improve their performance under pressure.

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