Personal space is the area immediately surrounding an individual, sometimes described as an imaginary “bubble.” Most people are very aware of others in “their space,” and many require the area to remain relatively clear in order to feel at ease. The idea of personal space is rooted in psychology, and there are many theories about how the space develops and how people react to violations. Some of this is based on genetics and brain chemistry, but a lot is also cultural.
Most medical professionals believe that the idea of a personal bubble is deeply engrained in the human brain. This is likely a function of our evolutionary past. Being hyper-aware of others in the immediate vicinity of our bodies allows us to take stock of our surroundings and escape danger when it approaches.
Babies are not usually born with an innate understanding of personal space, but psychologists often think that the idea ingrains itself at about the same time as a child gains an independent self-awareness — usually between three and four years of age. Space awareness is controlled by the amygdalae, which is part of the frontal lobe of the brain. Once this part of the brain is fully formed, humans begin to see themselves in relation to other people and objects and conceptions of space naturally follow.
There are usually at least three different gradations of personal space that can be thought of as “rings” within the bubble. The first, which is closest to the individual, is intimate space. Parents, siblings, romantic partners, and other close friends can usually enter this area at will without causing alarm or anxiety. Next is expected contact. This area is for anticipated encounters like shaking hands, standing near others in a packed train car, or hugging casual acquaintances. Most of these interactions are very short-lived.
The widest ring is usually known as social space, and is the rough perimeter that people expect to be kept clear when out in society. The actual circumference of this space varies a lot depending on the person and his or her subjective comfort, past experiences, and expectations. Others who enter this space in an expected or unanticipated way can cause anxiety.
Much of how a person defines his or her own personal space is shaped by upbringing. Some cultures are naturally much closer than others, and how comfortable a person is with others nearby is often a factor of the country or region where he or she grew up. Family of origin also plays a part in this. A person who grows up in a family that hugs a lot or prizes physical contact often has less of a problem with strangers being in the intimate or expected contact zones than would a person who grew up with a lot more distance.
Social Awareness and Space Problems
Certain developmental problems, autism in particular, can affect how a person judges both his or her own personal space as well as that of others. It is not uncommon for an autistic person to unintentionally get too close to others, for instance. There are also some anxiety disorders that cause people to place excessive importance on their own space. In extreme cases, those who suffer from this sort of affliction have to stay far away from others, and must usually avoid crowd situations. Sometimes these issues can be treated with behavioral therapy or medication, but not always.