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Corona expanded the boundaries of personal space

کرونا مرزهای فضای شخصی افراد را گسترش داد

A new study shows that during the coronavirus epidemic, environments in which people feel physically safe have increased.

The procedure is simple: a person is on his way to work. When a person approaches him, he says, “Stop,” and just as the private spatial dimension of individuals expands with respect to social distance. This distance can also be called individual space.

The study of changes in individual pre- and post-coronary artery disease was the subject of a study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital. The aim of this study was to better understand the individual space of individuals in this period. The researchers used data collected from 19 people to compare the results before the coronavirus epidemic. The team of researchers collected other data from dozens of people after the virus spread and found that individual space increased by 50 percent or more. This result indicates the expansion of the space in which people feel safe – we call it the safety zone. The expansion is due to compliance with six-foot spacing instructions requested by public health officials.

The study is not large, but it is part of a growing body of social science studies that seeks to examine the long-term effects of mental health during coronavirus outbreaks. Researchers are trying to figure out if changes in a person’s safety zone will continue or if they may be transferred from one period to another. They also want to know how much this region is expanding in each part of the country? In other words, have all states, cities and villages experienced an equal amount of expansion in the safety zone?

The American Scientific Journal interviewed lead researcher Daphne Holt, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. He has gained a lot of experience in this field due to his many efforts to understand how people create a space around them that they can consider their own. In a recent study, he took a preliminary step toward new research examining the psychological effects of the corona virus.

How did you get into this research space?

I have been interested in studying people’s personal space for a long time. My group studies some of the automated behaviors that represent the building blocks of social interaction. For example, we can mention many basic and everyday tasks that we do instinctively and automatically. One of these instinctive behaviors is the definition of personal space.

I am a psychiatrist and the disease I study the most is schizophrenia. It has been found that people with schizophrenia are sometimes unable to recognize personal space and exhibit unusual behaviors in this area. They are often isolated from others, and we have found that personal space issues in people with schizophrenia are associated with some social dysfunction. There is a simple two-way relationship: these people are less interested in being with others and thus stay away from them.

The general rule is this: Each person determines their personal space in each relationship according to the amount of knowledge they have of individuals. In addition, we all have a comfort zone where we feel uncomfortable if someone enters. The culture of different nationalities definitely affects the personal space. Social hierarchies also have an impact on this issue. However, it has been found that if we take all of these factors into account and control them – we can do it on a laboratory scale – there are people who prefer a relatively stable personal space. The personal atmosphere of this group of people is amazingly stable and does not change during the day. We are very interested in understanding the brain mechanisms of these people so that we can better understand their behavior. We performed our studies using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging of the brain using the “fMRI method”.

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What did you find?

We found that when intruding into the personal space of these people, interesting patterns are formed in response in the brain. In other words, we found that activity groups cause the “cortex” part of the brain – the part that extends to the outer layer of the brain – to start activating and sending signals. In other words, this part is stimulated. This result is really exciting because it gives us clues about how to use basic sensory information that we can use to calculate the distances that people prefer to have in their personal space.

Have you used other methods?

We have also used other common methods, including the separation distance method. In this method, one of the researchers goes to the person with schizophrenia and continues to do so until the person requests to stop. In fact, we are trying to understand the pattern of response that people express when the boundaries of their personal space are broken – what we call the “response form”. The form of the answer is not yet fully understood.

We have also used virtual reality (VR) in our studies. In this case, an avatar approaches the subject or the subject has to move towards the avatar in a virtual reality environment. It turns out that people care about getting closer to an avatar, just as they react to getting too close to a person in the real world. The response pattern is essentially the same, even if the avatars do not look very similar to real humans. Avatars can look like real humans in general, but there are enough differences in this experiment to distinguish them from the real thing.

What initially led you to use virtual reality?

The reason we decided to use virtual reality was that we could easily transfer the results to an fMRI scanner. Another reason was the ability to measure personal space under the influence of the physical characteristics of the people who participated in this study. For example, most people tend to stay away from a tall person when they are in a relationship. Therefore, by using real samples in this research, more accurate results will be obtained, which is also related to the physical characteristics of these people. Virtual reality, on the other hand, allows us to control all the variables and examine each contribution correctly. For example, changing the position or arm length of an avatar or making eye contact with an avatar can shed light on how such things affect personal space.

We are studying a group of people and we want to understand how they react to their personal space. Meanwhile, the Corona virus spread, prompting us to examine whether people’s privacy has changed during this time.

The answer seemed obvious. We were all suddenly asked to observe social distancing – something that was relatively unusual at first. We must stand at least six feet away from other people. The size of the personal space typically varies from 60 to 100 cm – depending on the situation.

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Social distancing as a public health measure is voluntary. But the usual way we distance ourselves from others is largely unconscious. So the question is: how do public health norms affect the boundaries of our personal and instinctive space? With virtual reality, we had the opportunity to actually read personal space questions in a virus-free context.

What did you discover?

We find that the boundaries of personal space – in any way we measure it – have increased dramatically. We measured it by bringing one person closer to another or an avatar.

In all the measurements that were taken, we saw a significant increase in personal space compared to similar measurements that were taken in the same people before the outbreak of the virus. We saw this even in response to avatars. Therefore, the risk of contracting a virus or infection was not the main reason for distance.

How much has the personal space environment increased?

Out of a total of 19 participants, 12 performed all assessments, including virtual reality sessions before and during the epidemic. For those who were evaluated both times, a 40 to 50% increase in personal space size was observed. Before the epidemic began, the size of personal space was about 80 to 90 cm, after which it reached an average of 125 cm.

Are we going to do bigger privacy experiments?

We have funding from the National Institutes of Health to support collaboration with some Massachusetts University engineers. They have invented a wearable sensor that can measure the distance of other people using sound waves. The way sound is reflected from other objects in the room can tell us whether a person is standing next to a living being or next to an inanimate object. In this way, we can actually measure personal space in real time with the help of sensors.

This study was planned before the outbreak of coronavirus to measure personal space in people with schizophrenia. But with the spread of the virus, we decided to use this technology to study the effects of the virus on people’s social behavior. Finally, we want to identify the people who need help at this stage of the crisis.

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As a psychiatrist, are you worried about these long-term effects?

Yes. I think we are already seeing signs of post-traumatic stress in some people. Some people have more psychological effects than others. These people are more vulnerable. I think these people are likely to have serious problems re-adapting to what was normal before the virus broke out. We intend to help these people in various ways.

We have also set up a workshop designed to help people recover during an epidemic. We tried to increase flexibility by teaching techniques that may help people manage stress and challenging life moments and social interactions. But making such changes requires a deep understanding of each person’s personal space.

Are we entering a new phase in life where normal pre-corona cases need to be redefined?

We all know that the way we interact with people during the Corona virus epidemic has changed dramatically. This raises a fundamental question about setting up a personal space. Will what happened during the outbreak of the virus have a lasting effect on the way our brains calculate personal distance?

We may never go back to our old way of life. In the case of personal space, the corona virus can have a profound effect on how personal spaces are designed, or even spaces such as homes, offices, restaurants or elevators. If people constantly feel the need to distance themselves from others in order not to endanger their health, we will see sweeping changes in people’s lifestyles and personal spaces.

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