At a distance
Certain nerve cells in the brain monitor the immediate environment of the body. Not only do they sound the alarm when someone gets too close, they are essential to our entire interaction with the environment.
It's an uncomfortable feeling when strangers get too close to us. Be it involuntarily in a crowded subway or as a demonstration of power in an argument. We feel each other's breath on our skin and have only one thing in mind: to distance ourselves as quickly as possible. Because in such situations, our personal distance zone is violated - an invisible buffer around our body. It surrounds us like a second skin and even influences the way we communicate with each other. And yet most people don't even know it exists.
The term buffer is actually not quite correct. Rather, there are numerous invisible zones that surround our face, arms and upper body. If an object enters these, certain nerve cells trigger evasive or defensive behavior. The size of the personal distance zone is flexible, it changes depending on mood or context. However, it's more than just a wall of protection: without it, we wouldn't be able to dodge obstacles or eat with a fork.
The first descriptions of the phenomenon are based on the observations of the Swiss zoologist and zoo director Heini Hediger (1908–1992). He discovered in the 1950s that captive animals mark out two types of territory: an external one, marked by certain landmarks such as rocks or trees, and one that they carry with them at all times. The behavioral scientist noticed that zebras did not flee immediately when they saw him coming, but only when …