How the Brain Copes With Social Distancing

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The psychology behind personal space (play audio)

Something isn’t right.

They no longer acknowledge the presence of one another.

Solitary or in couples, they scatter themselves in an oddly equidistant manner across the sand. They wander without purpose. When the path of one comes close to another, an invisible field leads them to alter their course, like two opposing magnets. It creates a cold, bleak vibe that contrasts ironically with the hot, sunny beach.

This is the scene I now see on my morning walk. You are no doubt seeing similar eerie sights in your part of the world, as social distancing has become our new norm.

While there is an undeniable need for such restrictions, observing how we behave in these times leaves me truly baffled.

Why does social distancing feel so unsettling?

Personal space

To understand the effect social distancing is having on us, we must first understand why six feet is considered “distant” in the first place.

In early childhood, we have little concept of social distance. As we grow older, we learn to manage distance in our interactions. By age 12, we have developed our own sense of “personal space.”

Most of this awareness is subconscious, but it becomes conscious when someone breaches it. This reaction comes from the amygdala.

The amygdala is the brain’s secret service bodyguard that can see threats before you are conscious of them. This built-in bodyguard kindly initiates your fight-or-flight response and helps you form and store memories associated with emotional events.

If you removed my amygdala, I would have no concept of personal space. I would also become docile, fearless, and hypersexual, which would probably make social distancing rather difficult.


Managing space in social encounters has become a science. Proxemics is the “study of human use of space and the effects it has on behaviour, communication and social interaction.”

Edward Hall defined this term in 1963 and went on to describe four social boundaries:

Public space: Greater than 12 feet (or 3.5 meters).

This is the distance we maintain from an audience to whom we are delivering a speech. If you are here, thank you for attending my talk, but until my speech is over, please keep this distance — at a minimum.

Social space: Four to 12 feet (or 1.2 to 3.5 meters).

This is the most comfortable distance to keep with people we don’t know well. If you are here, I assume you have come to thank me for my wonderful speech. This is your limit for now.

Personal space: 1.5 to four feet (or 0.5 to 1.2 meters).

This is for people we know and trust. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. It means I must like you. But I must insist that you come no farther.

Intimate space: Less than 1.5 feet away (or 0.5 meters).

This is reserved for romantic partners, close friends, and family. If you are none of those, I fear you may have misinterpreted my invitation. My amygdala is now firing a signal to my hypothalamus, triggering the release of stress hormones, should I need to physically remove you.

Here is what social distancing looks like with all of this in mind:

As you can see, new guidelines eclipse our personal space by four feet, and good luck getting anywhere near my intimate space.

While Hall described exact values, these are a general guide, given that they depend on many factors. Exceptions are also made in certain situations.

Fine, come on in

Haruki lives in Tokyo and just wouldn’t make it into work on time without that helpful train conductor stuffing him into an already overflowing subway car, nestling his body tightly between two sweaty commuters whom he now knows well — or at least he knows their familiar contours.

Haruki would rather not be so intimately acquainted with other commuters, but it is a sacrifice he is willing to make to get to work on time.

There are instances where we will happily allow even our intimate space to be breached by strangers, like during a haircut or a massage.

As a doctor, it took me a while to get used to routinely breaching a patient’s personal space while providing medical care. If you have ever had your eyes examined with an ophthalmoscope, feeling the doctor’s warm breath on your face as your amygdala starts firing, you know what I mean.

We are flexible when we need to be but would prefer to maintain our personal space where possible.

Warm Argentinians and cold Hungarians

There are also cultural differences. A study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology led by Agnieszka Sorokowska asked subjects from all over the world to rate the distances from which they felt most comfortable interacting with a stranger, an acquaintance, and someone close to them.


As you can see, culture has a significant impact on proxemics. On the warm end of the scale, we have Argentinians, who must really be feeling the new six-foot rule. Hungarians, on the other hand, might be less bothered by it.

Not everyone is invited

We will allow pretty much anyone into our social space, certain people into our personal space, and a select few into our intimate space. But how do we decide who gets what invitation?

Like most of our behavior, our emotions decide this for us.

If we like someone and find them trustworthy, we will “invite” them from our social space into our personal space. We might smile at them, hold eye contact, or lean our bodies toward them.

If we really like someone, they might even get an invitation into our intimate space. If they are a close friend or family member, we might place an arm on their shoulder. If they are a potential mate, well, I’ll tell you when you’re older.

If we dislike someone, we may try to put a wider space between us and them. We may point or lean our bodies away, signaling our desire for space.

Innate social distancing

We are evolutionarily wired to give greater distance to sick people. This may seem cruel, but there has always been a clear survival advantage to doing so.

We see this in chimpanzees, which cast out a sick member of the tribe but may welcome them back in if their symptoms subside.

As we evolved into polite human beings, this innate behavior became inhibited, but we still feel it. We may want to stand back from someone who is sneezing but just can’t bring ourselves to do it. This is partly why social distancing is so hard. It feels rude.

Today, distancing ourselves from possible risk is being encouraged — but our brains are struggling to implement it. This is because we must do it with everyone, whether they appear sick or not. For someone who appears sick, it might be easier as our primitive brain will tell us to do that anyway.

But the coronavirus, as we know, is infectious long before symptoms appear. How long must we habitually distance ourselves from those who do not appear sick?

The power of habit

Humans are remarkably adaptable. In just 66 days, the brain can form a behavioral pathway so powerful that it becomes automatic.

Once this time has elapsed, science would suggest that social distancing may become habitual. What would that look like?

In typical “social space” interactions, particularly those we are still having with shopkeepers or pharmacists, we may no longer have to remind ourselves of the six-foot rule. We may default to it.

We may also feel particularly accustomed to chatting with anyone we don’t like from a distance.

But the habit won’t go much further than this, and here is why: It will be competing with our primordial desire to close the very gap that social distancing has created — the superficial, new wiring of habit could never supersede the deep, fundamental programming of what makes us human.

Closing the gap

We begin interacting with a stranger in “social space,” but as soon as we build a rapport, we feel a desire to close the gap. No amount of social distancing will take that desire away from us.

The coronavirus may be reformatting the dimensions of our interactions, but our societies are built on the same age-old social distances. See how hard it is to keep distance in supermarkets? They haven’t been designed to allow for so much space between us.

The good news is that when restrictions end, we will be able to relate to one another like we always have. The bad news is that close talkers will soon enough be back, spitting in your face and firing up your amygdala once again. I get that.


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