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Are People Hardwired to Have "Personal Space"?

Everyone has their own personal space, monitored closely by the brain. If a stranger, or even an acquaintance, gets too close, your brain initiates an automatic response, instinctively urging you to back away. Researchers studying personal space, more accurately known as "peripersonal space," have documented this brain-controlled buffer zone around your body. It’s a basic survival mechanism, they say, and all sorts of animals, from insects to monkeys, also have an innate sense of personal space.

Getting a little too personal:

  • Researchers have identified two areas in the brain -- the premotor cortex in the frontal lobe, and the parietal lobe -- that trigger this uncomfortable feeling when personal space is breached.
  • Monitoring personal space is important for survival. If something’s too close, you may be in danger. But neutral space requirements vary among different people, and develop individually from childhood to adulthood.
  • Research in the 1960s identified “bubbles” of acceptable space among humans, from “intimate space” (up to 18 inches, or 46 cm) and “personal space” (up to 4 feet, or 1.2 m) for family and friends, to “social space” (up to 12 feet, or 3.7 m) for brand-new acquaintances and strangers.
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