Evidence That COVID Is Changing Personal Boundaries

By Medscape Staff

October 29, 2021

How much space we need to feel comfortable when interacting with others may be increasing as a result of the pandemic. Are the changes permanent?

What to know:

  • Using the "stop distance procedure," where a person moves closer and closer to a study participant until told to stop, researchers can evaluate how much personal space people need to feel comfortable in social interactions.

  • These boundaries are mirrored in functional MRI studies, which show that columns of activation in the brain respond to stimuli within the borders of personal space, according to Daphne Holt, MD, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

  • Holt and a team of researchers assessed personal boundaries in a group of 12 people before and after the start of the pandemic and the beginning of social distancing guidelines.

  • Whereas before the pandemic the average personal space needed was about 2.6 to 3 feet, in the pandemic that distance increased to 4.1 feet – a 40% to 50% increase in most people assessed.

  • While it's not yet clear if the changes are permanent, posttraumatic stress symptoms have been seen in some people already as a result of the pandemic, and Holt's team is working on a virtual reality solution designed to help people recover from the psychological effects.

This is a summary of the article "COVID Expanded the Boundaries of Personal Space — Maybe for Good" published by Scientific American on October 27. The full article can be found on scientificamerican.com.

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