In the mid-1960s anthropologist Edward T Hall introduced the concept of proxemics – the study of set measurable differences between people who are interacting. Drawing a blank? OK, does the term personal space ring a bell? It’s been ringing loud and clear in my mind for the past year and the din has reached an alarm level. I long for wide open spaces! Dr. Hall’s studies showed that people have set distances for various interactions. These distances vary by culture and to some degree by gender, but within a culture are understood on an unspoken level. You are comfortable getting close to someone with whom you are interacting on an intimate level – 6 to 18 inches are nothing between close friends. You’ll tolerate friends and family members within a foot and a half to two and a half. Among acquaintances that comfortable distance stretches out to at least 4 feet and as much as 12 feet. Naturally the distance increases as the relationship decreases – most of us feel more comfortable if strangers keep back. Not surprisingly Americans have a larger personal space than many other cultures. I know during my trips to China and Peru I felt crowded – probably because everyone stands so much closer to you in public. They breathe down your neck while waiting in line and pack way more people in an elevator than the manufacture deems appropriate.
Being crowded is not healthy. Crowding is linked with physical and social pathologies, illness and crime. One academic study of students living 3 to a 2 person room (Karlin et al 1978) showed that in overcrowded conditions participants were less likely to complete all the study tasks and reported higher anxiety and poorer mood. Once they were relocated to less crowded conditions their results improved.
Studies indicate that crowding is associated with increases in blood pressure and increased secretion of stress hormones, in the short term, at least. In the longer term, the picture is not as clear. And that gives me hope – all will be well (or better) once we have more space.
We are crowded in our interior space, that goes without saying, both because there just isn’t that much space inside our trailer and because there isn’t adequate storage space so for instance pots and pans are stacked on one burner, clean dishes stay in the dish drainer and the bath tub holds bags of trash, laundry, and recycling. Few tasks can be done without rearranging something. During the week while the kids are at school there’s a bit of a respite – except this week is fall break and the kids are home and the walls are closing in on us.
We are especially crowded in our exterior space – the neighboring RVs are well within the space we’d normally allow acquaintances. But they are strangers and I’d much rather they all took a step (or two) back! I noticed something one day as I walked the dogs down the row of RVs – every one of them had their blinds down, or curtains pulled. We do the same, and keep the windows closed as well. Why open the blinds when your view is of someone else’s window? Just think how awkward it would be if they also opened their blinds!
In addition to studying the effects of crowds, researchers have scrutinized the effects of people’s surroundings. I’ve read several of these studies – some heavily laden with statements like “Recent advances in the neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which makes use of the blood-oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) signals from the brain, enable the identification of the neural centers related with the brain function.” After reading that one twice I can say the gist of it is that views of nature aroused feelings of wakeful relaxation in the participants whereas urban views made study participants feel suffocated.
Another study concluded that:
Views of nature enhance the interest and concentration, and also reduce the fatigue and stress in our daily life. These findings suggested that natural environments not only lead to psychological stability such as a calm mood, but also to help in reducing stress. When people look at the natural scenic views, physiological indices such as heart rate, blood pressure, and so on, tend to normalize. Therefore, living in a nature-friendly environment acts as naturopathy and is a primer for crime prevention and improvements in self-control.
There’s a reason for the real estate axiom “Location, location, location”! We’re here for awhile – until the school year is over at which time, if I haven’t found that ‘real’ job, we will probably move to the Midwest where we have family. If I have a real job – and the children’s museum director told me she would like to hire me once their new museum is built (next summer) we will probably be here longer. In that case I hope we’ll have more spacious living conditions inside! I still browse through the craigslist ads – I think we could achieve wakeful relaxation in something this size: (craigslist posting for a travel trailer with 4 bunk beds – now deleted/sold).
And until then, I think maybe we’ll hit the beach today!