Anxiety may increase defensive personal space, so get off my grill!

Getting into the "defensive peripersonal space" of plate umpire Greg Gibson, right, got Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon thrown out of a game Monday.
Getting into the “defensive peripersonal space” of plate umpire Greg Gibson, right, got Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon thrown out of a game Monday.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

Get back, my friend. I got a big personal space today, and you’re in it.

And science is on our side. Some European scientists found that the average “peripersonal space” is around 8-16 inches, but it varies with anxiety.

The researchers measured eye-blink reflexes and compared that with test subjects’ ratings of anxiety in different circumstances. The people who were more anxious wigged out more strongly to far-away stimuli than the mellower bunch did. In other words, the high-anxiety group had a large “defensive peripersonal space,” according to the study published Tuesday in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The unconscious eye blink is a giveaway clue that anxious folks perceive threats as closer than do non-anxious people, even when the stimulus is the same distance away, according to the researchers.


“This finding is the first objective measure of the size of the area surrounding the face that each individual considers at high-risk, and thus wants to protect through the most effective defensive motor responses,” lead author Giandomenico Iannetti, a neuroscientist from University College, London, said in a written statement.

Iannetti and his team used 15 people aged 20 to 37 and rigged up an intense electrical stimulus to a nerve in the hand that causes the subject to blink. This hand-blink reflex is not under conscious control of the brain.

The researchers then measured the magnitude of the reflex as subjects held their own hand about 1.5 inches, eight inches, 15 inches and almost two feet away.

Evidence of a peripersonal space has been found in our primate relatives, the macaques. Scientists believe the reaction is mediated by our amygdala, a deep-brain structure involved in emotional learning and fear response.

Researchers hope to use the findings to assess abilities in jobs that include high danger.

Today, that would include messing with me.