The Bubble Universe - how social distancing is redefining our sense of self and others for the better
There's so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones
....My brothers in arms
- Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits
Certain physicists who are ‘out there’ proclaim that we actually live in an infinite ‘bubble universe’ or even bubble multiverse. At the fringes of the boundaries of what we can ‘see’ our vast bubble ‘pops’ to reveal another, and another, and another. We are each but one small inconsequential ‘sud’ in the foamy scheme of things!
In fact we ARE currently living in a bubble. Each and every one of us. It’s a finite bubble 2m in diameter and we refer to it as ‘social distancing’. It may be ‘invisible’ but we feel it, we respond to it, we may even flinch as other human beings (or even objects) encroach upon and threaten to burst this protective casing and cause us to frenziedly dash for the nearest hand sanitiser dispenser thence to lather ourselves soapily stupid...!
The brain is well aware of this extent that surrounds us – it's always been a facet of how we go about processing the world. Technically it can be referred to as ‘peripersonal space’ (Brozzolli et al., 2011; Pellegrini and Ladavas, 2015). Another notion is ‘embodied cognition’. The former refers to the spatial extent upon which the immediacy of the world can significantly (I.e. immediately) impinge upon our functioning. Things hoving into our ‘bubble’ are responded to rapidly and predictively. Our senses (particularly our somatosensory functions – touch, proprioception) are finely attuned to appropriate information, predict consequence, and enact behaviour in this immediate space. A sense of ‘self’ relies somewhat on the delineation of a boundary between that which can affect me/be affected by me spatially in my proximal neighbourhood, and that which lies beyond this peripheral boundary line. In line with the idea that certain brain networks turn on and off, and which pertain to construction of sense of ‘self, it is interesting to speculate on whether such ‘peripersonal space-processing areas’ might do likewise under certain conditions (such as is happening 'now'), and whether the boundary of this extent is less ‘fixed’ and more pliable. Milliere et al., (2018) review the literature on psychedelic, spiritual, meditative states and point to some evidence for an area known as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) as a candidate for this assertion. The TPJ is involved in multisensory integration, sense of bodily awareness and self-location, and increased functional connectivity has been observed in this (along with the bilateral insular cortex) in drug-induced ego dissolution. When self disappears, perhaps because one is highly absorbed in a task, or when the ego dissolves such as in states of consciousness that are not ‘normal’ (as above) and readily requiring a sense of urgent and productive communion with the environment, these spatially-referent brain functions do not come into play to define that boundary. This has been proposed to account for feelings of ‘one-ness’ or unity with the surroundings, the world, the cosmos (boundless, limitless).
Interestingly, it has been suggested that our senses fall into two camps – those that are more ‘attuned’ to this peripersonal space (the somatosensory system) and those that are more concerned with ‘distal’ information - I.e. that which lies beyond our immediate capacity to act upon the environment, being ‘further away’ - such as vision, audition (see Austin, 2010 for a discussion). These senses perhaps serve as longer-term warning systems, giving us time to respond to dangers, needs that lie further along the plane towards the horizon. This simplifies things of course. ‘Embodied cognition’ nevertheless situates an individual, a ‘self’ in the surrounding context of the environment, and allows for some sense of extension of that self beyond the confines of one’ small-scale bodily frame (a 3m 'barge' pole could conceivably extend your ‘self’ beyond what is physically possible within the much more practical bubble and with which to poke objects out of reach).
A grandiose vision encompasses a world in which people’s bubbles, their ‘peripersonal space’ accommodates the needs, thoughts, feelings of others, and change from one that is ‘self-focused’ (inevitably we are selfish beings – we are wired to prioritise our immediate feelings, senses, actions within this ‘peripersonal’ sphere of possible action), to one that has greater awareness of and proactivity towards those of ‘others’ out there. To change behaviour first needs awareness. Intention sadly has limited proclivity to become motivated action. However, there is a groundswell of change in the air. It can be seen all around us at the moment. ‘Social distancing’ has become something of a ‘norm’ (or at least is well on the way towards being so). After initial grumblings, skepticism, outright dismissal, it is evident everywhere. Most pronouncedly at the local shops. Wander into the Spar, or Tesco’s or wherever you will, and the principle is most easily embraced.
Because the brain is at core an organ that has evolved to allow us to move efficiently and effectively throughout our environment, a large amount of it’s processing power is dedicated to finessing motor control, operating the sensorimotor contngencies that allow us to process information, and to convert that into behaviour (action). Hence, a most effective approach to changing attitudes is to affect the underlying motor systems that galvanise the brain and which flood down through the more evaluative and abstract functions we luxuriate in. Research has shown how action based, concrete words are responded to rapidly, with more abstract terms being less readily associated with motor abilities, and therefore lower down the prioritisation spectrum.... (Klepp et al., 2019)
So the efficacy with respect to changing major ingrained attitudes and beliefs and practices, can be observed all around as prompted by changing the patterns of movement throughout our ‘primal foraging’ environment (the supermarket!). Now as you approach the door, you ready yourself to enter the sanctum of distancing! You don the gloves, sanitise the hands, prepare to step in and out of ‘exclusion zones’ as demarcated by yellow and black ‘hazard’ tape, hesitating if another individual is contained within such a zone. You may wrestle with the conundrum to pass swiftly behind a (mal) lingerer to get to the next zone (but hold your breath as you do – as if a noxious bodily emission has been gifted by the previous incumbent!).
From what I have observed in my local community, by and large there is a good-humoured acceptance of this state of affairs. Consideration is given to fellow shoppers and cashiers. We are all in this together! A redefining of social boundaries and peripersonal space that, by virtue of this setting of boundaries and making such definition, in fact extends a secondary, but vital, property out beyond into the realm of ‘other’. It is common courtesy, consideration, decency, and concern for the welfare of others! In short the brain is reconfiguring, now flexibly accommodating the ‘other’ and the spatial extent of that other, as being as equally important to ‘self’. Whether this is measurable remains to be seen. But the proof of the pudding is in the social experimental crucible that we can engage in simply by wandering round to the shops.
The more ‘motorically’ this principle and these practices are embedded, certainly at the neural level, as with any habit, the more they will persist over time. For to shake a habit takes a certain trauma at times. So our current ‘trauma’ has yielded, one might say, to a positive change in behaviours, and as we are in this for ‘the long-term' the principles ought to become ever more embedded and harder to change back...We shall see!
As is generally the way with my blog pieces, I start off intent to talk about something quite specific – in this case virtual reality and how this can be used to design more impactful and engaging environments that stimulate productive and positive behaviours. But other more fundamental ideas arise and I diverge! The point is though, the real environment we are all privvy to at the moment provides wealth of observational evidence as to how human attitudes and consequent actions are changing on a massive scale. These are unprecedented times for sure, and the rich pickings are there for the taking with respect to useful data on how to change things for the better... Next time, how Virtual Reality can be used to design environments that stimulate behavioural change. I promise!
Austin, J.H. (2010). The Thalamic Gateway: How the Meditative Training of Attention Evolves toward Selfless Transformations of Consciousness. Pages 373-407 in Bruya, B. (Ed.). (2010). Effortless attention: A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action. Cambridge, MA, US: MIT Press
Brozzoli,C., Makin, T.R., Cardinali, L., Holmes, N.P. and Farnè. A. (2011) A Multisensory Interface for Body–Object Interactions in Murray, M.M. and Wallace, M.T. (Eds) (2011) The Neural Bases of Multisensory Processes, Chapter 23: Peripersonal Space. CRC Press
Klepp, A., van Dijk, H., Niccolai, V., Schnitzler, A., and Ruben, K.B. (2019). Action verb processing specifically modulates motor behaviour and sensorimotor neuronal oscillations. Scientific Reports, 9:15985
Millière, R., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Trautwein, F. M., & Berkovich-Ohana, A. (2018). Psychedelics, Meditation, and Self-Consciousness. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1475.
Pellegrino, G. and Làdavas, E (2015). Peripersonal space in the brain. Neuropsychologia, 66, 126-133
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.