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Will Social Distancing Have a Lasting Impact on 'Personal Space'?

In This Article

  • Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have shown an increase in subjects' 'personal space' requirements since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • During the same study, they observed a correlation between the size of the increase and individual subject's level of concern about contracting the COVID-19 virus
  • Whether the increases endure after the pandemic subsides is an important question, as personal space requirements often reflect social functioning
  • The researchers are developing a virtual reality-based personal space intervention that could help patients who experience persistent difficulties in social functioning

Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital are studying the possible long-term effects of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Daphne J. Holt, MD, PhD, physician investigator in the Department of Psychiatry at Mass General and MGH Research Scholar 2018-2023, and Roger Tootell, PhD, assistant biologist, both faculty members in the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Mass General, have long explored the neuroscience of personal space, seeking deeper understandings of the 'comfort zone' we maintain around our bodies, consciously or not, and how the brain works to regulate this space.

Two years ago, Drs. Holt and Tootell began using a new paradigm to help advance this work: a virtual reality model that provided a more reliable means to track individuals' sense of personal space. After enrolling 19 subjects and measuring their responses to approaching avatars (virtual 'persons') in the virtual reality environment, they were optimistic about the new paradigm and what it might tell them about the neural underpinnings of personal space.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The pandemic not only shut down all experiments at the Martinos Center for a number of months, but it also presented a confounding factor when the studies resumed later in the summer. Namely: because it created dramatically different circumstances for subjects, the researchers could no longer conduct the experiments under the same conditions as before, and therefore would have to discontinue the original study.

However, Drs. Holt and Tootell saw an opportunity in the disruption in their work that the pandemic had caused: they could bring back subjects from the original round of experiments and, by comparing the measurements obtained before and after the onset of the pandemic, explore the potential impact of COVID—not least, the social distancing requirements put in place to help fight the virus—on individuals' sense of personal space.

Ultimately, twelve of the subjects returned for additional experiments. The researchers analyzed the data from these new measurements and were intrigued by what they found. First, they noticed that personal space had expanded in the subjects, both in real life and in virtual reality. This observation pointed to a real, intrinsic change in their personal space requirement during the pandemic.

At the same time, they had asked the subjects questions about how worried they were about contracting the COVID-19 virus, hoping to understand the relationship between personal space and their level of concern about being infected. When looking at the data, they indeed saw a correlation between the two, suggesting a possible broader struggle for those who are more concerned about the virus.

"These findings support an idea that goes back to Freud's original insights," Dr. Holt says. "Our conscious worries and beliefs about our lives can influence our day-to-day behavior in ways that we're not aware of. In this case, the influence of the pandemic on our minds could affect our ability to interact comfortably with other people for quite some time."

And it's not only interpersonal interactions that could be impacted. Other aspects of our daily lives might also prove challenging. "Although we are generally not aware of it," Dr. Tootell says, "many buildings are designed based on a 'normal' personal space. This was about two feet before the pandemic. If the average personal space requirement has now become larger, then certain architectural features—small rooms and elevators—may feel too crowded, at least until personal space requirements relax again."

If they relax again. Drs. Holt and Tootell emphasize that we don't yet know whether the increase in personal space size will reverse itself after the pandemic eventually subsides or proves an enduring change. This question is an important one, not only because the answer will tell us something about the plasticity of brain mechanisms associated with personal space but also because personal space size often serves as a marker of social functioning.

For example, correlations have been found between personal space size and social withdrawal, and other negative symptoms in schizophrenia, mediated by a specific sensory-motor circuit in the brain. If the recently observed increases in personal space endure even post-COVID, many people may experience persistent difficulties in social functioning—difficulties that might need to be addressed clinically.

In fact, this team of scientists and clinicians, including Nicole DeTore, PhD, and Sarah Zapetis is currently developing a virtual reality-based intervention to help modify personal space in cases where social functioning is compromised, a type of exposure therapy in which patients are acclimated to the simulated physical closeness of other people in a safe, virtual way. The intervention could be beneficial for patients with social dysfunctions stemming from pandemic-related distancing as well as those who experience negative symptoms of schizophrenia or other diseases.

Ultimately, the ability to perform high-resolution imaging of the brain circuitry involved in regulating personal space could play an additional role in treating these patients.

"In the future we may be able to improve the function of this part of the brain directly, using virtual reality interventions like the one we've developed," Holt says. "This would allow us to refine the treatment and its dosing based on the responses of a person's brain. This could end up being very useful in treating something as difficult to measure as someone's ability to feel comfortable with others."

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