Personal Space Bubbles and the Physical Location of the Self

Personal Space, Status, and Territory

Kevin Simler has a great post about social status and its relation to space; a central aspect of this is personal space. As Kevin observes, we can understand a lot about people and the social relations between them by how watching they interact in space. People exert dominance by taking up a lot of space, or by invading someone else’s space; people express submission by huddling up, making themselves small, and trying to use as little space as possible.

So space is related to status in the following manner: having more status means having more space. Personal space can be explained very naturally in terms of territory, since having more territory makes you more powerful. If you’re trying to dominate someone, you will steal his territory. If you’re trying to submit to someone, you’ll surrender your territory to him.

The Personal Space Bubble

The personal space bubble.

We can understand personal space metaphorically as a bubble. This “personal space bubble” marks the invisible boundary of your territory. As long as no one gets inside your bubble, all is well. But as soon as someone enters it unbidden, you’ll begin to feel physically uncomfortable, because your space has been invaded. Notice how this metaphor of invasion captures both the territorial aspect of personal space and the threat inherent in its violation.

So we can conceive of the personal space bubble as demarcating territory. But I’d like to explore another metaphor for understanding personal space: namely, we can view the personal space bubble as an extension of the physical body. This leads to some interesting insights, especially when we combine the PERSONAL SPACE IS BODY metaphor with the metaphor BODY IS SELF to get PERSONAL SPACE IS SELF.

Personal Space as an Extension of the Body

If we view the personal space bubble as part of the body, then entering someone’s personal space is like touching that person physically. The discomfort we feel at having our personal space invaded resembles the discomfort we experience at being touched by someone we don’t really know.

On the physical body, we view some parts as more spatially central, and others as more peripheral. Touching a central body part is much more intimate than touching a peripheral one. Someone you barely know might tap you on the shoulder, but touching someone’s chest or belly is usually reserved for romantic relationships. During courtship, physical contact proceeds from the most peripheral (least intimate) body parts to the most central (most inimate) ones. Pickup artist blogs encourage men to playfully touch a woman’s arm (a peripheral body part) in order to initiate physical contact and thereby create the beginnings of intimacy. “Escalating” the physical contact increases the intimacy. (MORE IS UP, for my fellow metaphor nerds.)

Personal Space as an Extension of the Self

Why is physical contact such a big deal? What makes it so intimate, or so threatening, depending on the context? The evo-psych answer to this is obvious: physical proximity equals vulnerability, so it makes sense that we’d have developed a very strong emotional response to it. But we can gain more insights into the significance of physical contact when we view it in terms of the metaphor BODY IS SELF, which we can combine with PERSONAL SPACE IS BODY to get PERSONAL SPACE IS SELF.

Observe that these metaphors contrast with the very space-limited conception we often have of the self. The self is frequently equated with the mind, or constrained even more narrowly to the higher cognitive functions. This means that if we grant the self a physical location at all, it will be in the brain. (A few weeks ago, I asked a friend where his self was, and he replied, with no hesitation, “my prefrontal cortex”.) Embodied cognition has begun to challenge this idea, extending the boundaries of the self to encompass the body as well. But even with the insights from embodied cognition, people usually don’t conceive of the self as extending beyond the body. (Notable exceptions include the people who study extended cognition, as well as all the mystical traditions which seek to remove the separation between self and other by asserting that all of us are one.)

Despite our dualistic heritage, though, I don’t think we really conceive of the self as restricted to the brain. We may talk about it that way in rational philosophical discourse, but linguistically and conceptually, we seem to perceive the body as part of the self. If someone touches your arm, it’s much more likely that you’ll think to yourself “someone touched me” than “someone touched my body”. This shows that the body and self are linked metonymically. And there’s an entire disorder for people who feel like their bodies are not part of their selves; it’s called depersonalization, and I’ve experienced it. If you have this condition, you will look at your body, and it won’t feel like a part of you; instead, it will feel like a machine that you operate. When you lift your arm, you’ll understand that you’re the one making it move, but it will feel like operating a robot from a distance. This suggests to me that the BODY IS SELF metaphor provides a very accurate description of our ordinary perceptions.

So what are the implications of this metaphor and its extension PERSONAL SPACE IS SELF? For one thing, it means that whenever someone invades your personal space or touches your body, they are touching and therefore altering your self. (Note that this relies on a further metaphor: to touch something physically is to alter or control it. Examples are “the film touched me deeply” and “he pushed me to publish my results”. These metaphors follow very naturally from the fact that touching things physically often allows us to influence, change, or control them.)

If someone dominates you by touching you or invading your personal space, they are imposing their self on yours; they are entering your self-space and thereby influencing your personality and identity. The closer they come, the further they intrude into your self-territory, the more their self blends with yours. This explains why couples in relationships are happy to enter each other’s space – they want to blend their selves, to unify into a single entity in some sense. And this is why sex is the most intimate of all acts, because it is the closest two selves can merge with one another. It’s also why rape is so traumatic: it doesn’t just hurt your body, but invades the deepest parts of your self.

Self and Possessions

We can extend our metaphor (and our selves!) even further if we say that possessions are part of the self. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m a territorial person, and when someone uses my stuff without asking first, it makes me feel very uncomfortable, like someone were violating my personal space. So this metaphor makes a lot of sense to me, and I’d like to add it to my conceptualization of the world.

Conceiving of possessions as part of the self gives a new meaning to the idea that “the things you own end up owning you”. When you buy something, that object gets integrated into your self. Some objects, like fancy cars, seem to come with their own “personalities”; when you buy one of these, it will merge with and influence your own personality. If you start out with a weak personality, and you acquire a lot of powerful artefacts, you may find them taking over…

But consider objects that don’t come with a personality; or rather, since all objects presumably have some personality, consider objects whose personalities are weak enough to be negligible. I’m thinking of things like an ordinary, functional stapler, a plain white coffee mug, or a simple decorative item in your house. You probably own a lot of these objects, but not all of them will be equally important to you. Thus, we can think of more and less peripheral objects, like there were more and less peripheral body parts. A disposable object that you don’t care about losing is likely to be peripheral. The most central objects are things like a kid’s blankie or teddy bear, or an adult’s computer or guitar.

What determines which objects are central and which are peripheral? The model I use for this is that when you first acquire an object, it gets infused with a little bit of your self, just because you own it. The longer you own the object, and the more you use it, the more of your self gets infused into it. This can happen with any kind of use, but the more emotion you feel when using the object, the stronger the bond between you and it will grow.

People say that freedom from possessions makes you happier. In terms of my metaphor, I think there are two reasons for this. One was already mentioned above: if you own a lot of objects with strong personalities, you may find that your own personality gets overwhelmed. But another is just that, if you own a lot of possessions, then your self will get spread too thin. You’ll have put bits of your self into so many objects that you won’t have any left to keep inside your body.

One way to free yourself from possessions is just to own less stuff: the fewer things you have, the less thinly you will need to spread yourself between them. And having fewer objects lets you invest more sentimental value in each of them. If you only have one spoon, it will be a lot more important to you than if you had fifteen identical spoons and used a different one each night.

But another way to free yourself from possessions is to “hold each possession lightly”. That is, you can have lots of possessions, as long as you don’t infuse much of your self into them. This can help prevent loss aversion, the phenomenon where we care more about losing something than we did about acquiring it in the first place. My explanation of loss aversion is that when you lose an object, you don’t just lose the physical possession, but the bits of your self that you’ve infused into it. So you can prevent loss aversion simply by putting less of your self into your possessions. Phrasing this in terms of a more common metaphor, the less you invest emotionally in your possessions, the less of a big deal it will be if you lose them. This is the physical possession version of keeping your identity small.


This post was inspired by Kevin Simler‘s essays exploring different metaphors (see the bottom section here), as well as some conversations I had with him. So, thanks Kevin!

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9 Responses to Personal Space Bubbles and the Physical Location of the Self

  1. Sarkos says:

    Excellent post. Much of this is explored in the study of Proxemics as described by Edward T. Hall in “The Hidden Dimension”. Here’s a relevant quote:

    “The general failure to grasp the significance of the many elements that contribute to man’s sense of space may be due to two mistaken notions: (1) that for every effect there is a single and identifiable cause; and (2) that man’s boundary begins and ends with his skin. If we can rid ourselves of the need for a single explanation, and if we can think of man as surrounded by a series of expanding and contracting fields which provide information of many kinds, we shall begin to see him in an entirely different light. We can then begin to learn about human behavior, including personality types. Not only are there introverts and extroverts, authoritarian and egalitarian, Apollonian and Dionysian types and all the other shades and grades of personality, but each one of us has a number of learned situational personalities. The simplest form of the situational personality is that associated with responses to intimate, personal, social, and public transactions. Some individuals never develop the public phase of their personalities and, therefore, cannot fill public spaces; they make very poor speakers or moderators. As many psychiatrists know, other people have trouble with the intimate and personal zones and cannot endure closeness to others.”

    The idea of investing self or personality in objects is essentially the psychological theory of talismans. I would add that it’s possible to be influenced by the personalities of objects belonging to other people and the general environment, especially the powerful artifacts, like Grandma’s antique vase and national monuments. Except here the attribution of the source of the extended personality is with someone else or a collective. It seems as if aesthetic qualities grant intrinsic personality to objects regardless of ownership. It’s also possible to sever personal connections to objects and reclaim the bits of self. That my self extends to my possessions (an apt metaphor) explains why a new residence just doesn’t feel like ‘home’ until my things are unpacked and arranged for my convenience.

    • Darcey Riley says:

      Glad you liked the post, and thanks very much for the comment and references! I had never heard of Proxemics or the psychological theory of talismans before. (Do you recommend any specific articles/books on the latter? A quick google search has failed to turn anything up.)

      Everything you said about objects and their personalities makes complete sense. Also, there’s so much more to be said about the factors that influence an object’s emotional significance (not all of which necessarily fits neatly into my metaphor). For instance, gifts seem to be particularly powerful; many of my most treasured possessions were gifts from close friends. In terms of my metaphor, receiving a gift from someone is like getting a small piece of that person’s self, which explains why losing a gift is so much worse than losing something I bought for myself: presumably I can “regrow” the pieces of my self that I lost, but a piece of someone else is lost forever (or at least until they give another gift). And some gifts seem to be more powerfully infused with the giver’s self: something generic and store-bought won’t get as much of it as a more thoughtful and personal gift, or something the giver once owned. Used books and antiques have the same appeal; the metaphor explains where they get their extra “character”.

      I’m still trying to decide how family heirlooms work under this model; I could just say that they’ve accumulated bits of many people’s selves, but then they’d be no different from antiques owned by many unrelated people over the years. One option would be to say that the family has a collective self that gets put into the object, but I’m not sure how much sense that makes; I’m more inclined to say that the selves in a family “harmonize” better than the selves of a bunch of random strangers, and this is what gives rise to the emergent structure, but I’m not sure I’m happy with that explanation either.

      What you said about getting a new residence makes sense, although my experience differs: a new apartment doesn’t feel like it’s “mine” until I’ve cleaned every inch of it personally. In general, I think cleaning has very territorial implications for me. I wonder what anthropological theory (if any) would explain that.

  2. o3m says:

    A better way to conceptualise the nature of your conclusions is to consider space as being not only a physical but socio-psychological entity – i.e., space as being constructed. Social construction of space is relevant in the sense that space is a factor in, reflection of, and impacts one’s identity. As you have noted, the identity of a person often encompasses elements which are not only beyond their brain but their bodies. For example, identity at a group level is often grounded in objects (symbols); the violation of the space or integrity of these objects is a threat to the self. This further extends your hypothesis that the perception of the ‘self’ may be referrant to outside objects. To me, indeed, a model of the self presupposes both an origin of the means by which to assess itself and information to compare against. In this case, not only may physical objects form a sense of identity yet also elements of cognition like language.

    What is the origin of the identity by which space is conceived and delimited? Evolutionary psychologically encapsulates but often fails to directly name the reason for trait acquisition and proliferation: the preservation of life. Given that human beings are capable of complex abstraction and information storage through culture, the more critical factor than evolutionary psychology becomes social relations amongst men. So you may see, for example, that your description of the intimacy of sexuality is not a universal trait within the societies of history, and this is a direct consequence of the structure of familial relations. Likewise, the modern pursuit of rationality has fit, modified, and drawn the ‘preservation’ of life to new extremes and in many modes not previously imagined – and many of these are controlled via space.

    Consider an infant: children, when they are born, do not naturally sleep in a single spot but move around an erratic manner within their space. From our social relations and introspection, we have been conditioned to and determined that sleeping in a bed (here a limited, pre-defined space) is a ‘good’ activity; as such, we train the infant to sleep within the confined space through discipline – i.e., using a crib. As the child grows, it sees sleeping in the bed as a normal activity and, through the combination of social explanations and internal, often rational, justification, no longer requires a crib to forcibly maintain its behaviour – it disciplines itself. The bed is now the proper and private space through discipline, social relations, and introspection. Further, to touch the bed of a potential sexual partner in our culture, therefore, may be seen as even more intimate than touching parts of their body.

    Rationalism feeds off of and contributes to the unconscious; inconsistencies emerge not only from one’s attempt to be purely rational but also rationalisations of originally ‘irrational’ behaviour. That is, we create and embody identites which are inconsistent per some standard we have rationally selected, but also use rationality as a means to justify the intuition leading to identification in the first place. In the example of the preservation of life, thus, we have built and stood by massive configurations of geography over the span of the world and divided it between ourselves so that identity may be preserved. The god Yahweh (YHWH), a name of the god of Abraham, is hypothesised to originally have been a divine hero who formed a contract with a given people (think: how do we know a people if not for their identity and thereby space?) to be their patron; the Israelites likely believed that each group had their own god (e.g., Marduk of the Babylonians) and so their group-identity space was rationalised by divine right. When Israel fell, the loss of space forced the Israelites to reconceptualise the nature of their own divinity to explain their circumstances – for how could their groups-space be violated and collapsed? And so, they reasoned, the entire world was now the space of their god, the god who henceforth had no equal, and that all space was theirs. God was everywhere and, now, so were they – that is identity.

    I will end by sharing something which I believe may be of interest to you. You mention the use of objects to entail a sense of self within a new location, and this reminded me of a notable work, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, by sociologist Erving Goffman. Known as the founder of symbolic interactionism, the author uses the imagery of theater in order to portray the importance of human and social action and interaction; he refers to this as the dramaturgical model of social life. In this scene, the props that one uses communicate information about self-perceived, critical characteristics of the self. “When persons are present to one another,” he writes, “they can function not merely as physical instruments but also as communicative ones. This possibility, no less than the physical one, is fateful for everyone concerned and in every society appears to come under strict normative regulation, giving rise to a kind of communication traffic order” – and your idea of space is the road.

    • Darcey Riley says:

      Thanks for the comment! I definitely agree with you that our interpretation of space is socially constructed rather than completely innate. And the bed example was interesting; I didn’t know that about infants.

      I also agree with you about the interactions between rationality and the emotions/unconscious. And now I’m thinking about Yahweh, and how his relation to space changed over time. Based on my (very limited) studies of the Bible, I was under the impression that before the Jews settled Israel, Yahweh was not associated with any particular piece of land, but was localized to the Ark of the Covenant, which was carried wherever the tribe went. Once they got settled in Israel, he became more permanently affixed to the temple, such that in order to worship him, it was necessary to visit the temple and make sacrifices and stuff. When the Jews were exiled to Babylon and the temple destroyed, this kind of worship was no longer possible, so Yahweh became a “portable” god again; worship became a matter of studying Torah and following rules rather than making sacrifices in the temple, and this could be done wherever the Jews went. So it seems like Yahweh went from “portable” to “fixed” back to “portable” again. (While writing this comment, I was talking to Sarkos, who pointed out that Yahweh only transitioned from “local” to “universal” due to the teachings of Paul.)

      And thanks for the recommendation of Goffman! His book Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience has been sitting in my to-read list for a while; I hope to get to it one of these days, and then perhaps to the rest of his work.

  3. Kevin says:

    Hey Darcey — so I was stewing on this for a while and something didn’t sit right with me. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with pretty much everything you wrote here. But both my own post and yours seem to suffer from having too many things all lumped in together, mutually explaining each other. It’s like they’re pointing out all these interrelated metaphors without pointing out the overarching frame the explains the whole field in one fell swoop.

    That’s what I was kind of thinking, dimly, but it became much clearer when I read this tonight: I don’t know if you’ve encountered Construal Level Theory before. I had — but didn’t spot it’s applicability to status, space, etc. Reading up on it tonight, though, I felt like everything clicked into place very elegantly. It explains not only why status and space are related in these ways, but also where the metaphors come from(!). At least I think they do… might have to stew on that a little more.

    It also suggests one possible explanation for why we treat some of our possessions like parts of our selves: we process them in the most concrete (low) construal level. This is because we’ve spent so much time with these objects, know them intimately, etc., etc., and why sometimes even the flaws in these objects can make us love them even more. That old stuffed bear we love is so much more than “a stuffed animal” (high construal). It’s “Ted, my teddy bear with the matted hair on his bad, who lost his eye on that vacation to Texas” (extremely low construal).

    Anyway I’m not quite sure about this. Just something to crunch on. It feels like there is something tantalizingly profound to be grokked in all this — something about the structure of our brains (trees, hierarchical cortical networks) and the relationship of those structures to the physical world, as sensed and explored from an agent with a single, first-person perspective. (Hope that kinda makes sense.)

    • Darcey Riley says:

      Sorry for taking so long to respond to this! I was waiting to look at Construal Level Theory until I had time to really sit down and think about it, which of course means that it got put off nearly indefinitely. Anyway, I’ve read the article now, and it’s fascinating to see how this effect is preserved over both literal and metaphorical types of distance. I’ll need to think some more about Construal Level Theory and its relation to both of our posts.

      After reading the article, I’m mostly understanding Construal Level Theory in terms of approximate inference. Some of the “distances” described in the article might be based on how well we are able to predict/understand what is going on. That is, “closer” things might be ones for which we have more exact models, and can therefore reason about more precisely and in more detail. I don’t think this accounts for all aspects of Construal Level Theory (why would it be harder to predict the contents of a vacation five months from now than one week from now?), but I do have a strong intuition that it’s related somehow. But my perspective is also biased because I’ve been thinking about approximate inference all day.

      Also, this is completely unrelated, but are you familiar with the work of Gilles Fauconnier? He’s another cognitive semanticist, along with Lakoff and Filmore. I’ve been reading his books lately, and they are completely changing the way I think about cognition. If you’re familiar with his work, I’d be very interested to hear what you think of it.

      • Kevin says:

        Re “approximate inference”: Yeah I can’t see how that would explain temporal distance either. But I can see how the brain should be less _motivated_ to think about the distant future relative to the near future. I imagine a lot of modules in the brain refusing to be “brought into a discussion” of the distant future, on the grounds that it’s not worth their time/effort. So maybe we simply have less rich/concrete/precise details available to us by that mechanism (?).

        Re Fauconnier: Unfortunately I haven’t read any of him. I bought his book “Mappings in Thought and Language” years ago, but never got around to reading it. Do you know of any good summaries of the parts of his work that have changed how you think about cognition?

        • Darcey Riley says:

          Your explanation of temporal distance makes sense to me. Regarding Mappings in Thought and Language, that’s the book that’s currently breaking my mind! Unfortunately, it might be sort of impenetrable if you haven’t already read his other book Mental Spaces. I don’t know of any summaries of either book, but if you’d like, I can try to write one up! (I’ve been meaning to do this for a while anyway; it would be a good exercise for me, and also I may want to blog about this stuff at some point.)

          • Kevin says:

            Well yeah, reading your summary of it would be awesome. (There’s nothing better than having complex material summarized by someone with similar taste/approach/knowledge.) If it falls off your plate, don’t worry about it though… I understand how these things go :).

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