The Personal Bubble

by Jonah Lehrer

Most people prefer to interact with others at a distance of about two feet, a polite gap that's known as the personal bubble. It's our zone of privacy, a way of ensuring that our hand gestures, smells and spittle don't interfere with the conversation. (It's also hard to focus on someone else's face when they get much closer than 10-12 inches.) However, there's a new paper in Nature Neuroscience documenting the strange case of patient SM, who is completely missing this personal bubble due to a selective pattern of brain damage in the temporal lobe. The end result is that SM doesn't mind "close talkers" and has to constantly remind herself that everyone else prefers a little social distance. Ed Yong, over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, examines the case report in detail:

She [SM] said time and time again that she was actually comfortable at any distance, and during one trial, she actually walked all the way to her partner until they were actually touching. Even when they were making direct eye contact and touching nose-to-nose, she only rated the experience as 1 on a comfort scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is perfectly comfortable. When a male stranger talked to her up close, she again rated the chat as a 1 (even though he gave it a 7).