OPINION: Observing the space

Columnist Karen Kotze.

I read a fascinating article recently about the purpose – and psychology – of personal space.

Termed peripersonal space, this buffer zone we have, mirrors the ones animals have – and use – for their survival in the wild.

A Swiss biologist and zoo director, Heini Hedinger, said that for animals, there are three zones.

The flight distance is what herd animals observe when predators are in their vicinity. This is where the lion is far enough away for the animal to continue watchfully grazing; any closer and it will flee. The next circle is the defence distance which will cause the animals to defend themselves, possibly through attack, rather than fleeing.

Finally, the closest circle is called the critical distance: here, if a predator is too close, escape is not an option and the animal will freeze in the hopes that playing dead is safest.

After our hard lockdown and subsequent months facing a global pandemic with enforced physical distancing, it appears our perception of our own peripersonal space has changed, as well it would in the face of a threat, perceived or real.

By that I mean that we apparently respond to what is real and what is predicted, equally. And, interestingly, our perception of our own peripersonal space shrinks or grows depending on what we are doing, how we are feeling and who we are with.

To me, nothing illustrates the physical representation of these differences more than the reaction to mandatory mask wearing and people’s response to our enforced physical distancing.

Some people need, and therefore appreciate and respect, the physical boundaries which Covid precautions have put in place, whereas others need – or are inherently more comfortable with – closer contact.

The aspect I found most interesting was how this approach relates to objects in our peripersonal space.

Cognitive scientist Natalie Sebanz discovered that if you are working alone (or with someone unreliable), objects you’re working on or with, that are close to you, feel like they are in your peripersonal space.

Apply that thought, for a moment, to your mask.

Anxiety is a recognised factor in people needing more physical space. And remember: since it’s personal and a perception, you could be anxious about being exposed to Covid, or anxious about not being able to breathe fresh air. Either way, it’s anxiety and your biology will respond unconsciously.

On the other hand, if you work alongside someone who is paying attention, i.e. someone who is co-operative, these same objects no longer feel as though they are in that buffer zone. And people are figuratively, and probably physically, able to breathe easier.

This presents a deeper insight into others and our own reactions and simultaneously offers an opportunity to be more socially proactive, on a more subtle level.

It’s about lines, not to cross.

Some are taught in preschool colouring-in lessons; some are not taught soon enough – equal rights, sentience of animals, how violence is not an answer.

And while everybody’s emotional health is their own to manage, I think understanding that people’s stressors are different and that sometimes literally taking a step back in a fraught or escalating situation, could be enough to give others – or yourself – the space to feel safe.

This one act of kindness, of which we are all capable, puts me in mind of the wonderful words spoken by Neil Armstrong in 1969 as he stepped onto vastly unfamiliar territory for the first time: “This is one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”