The Space Between Us

Scott McLemee explores Michael S. A. Graziano’s The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution and Human Nature, which describes how we are each surrounded by a kind of invisible bubble possessing remarkable qualities.

January 19, 2018
 
 

The spooky and often beautiful images produced by Kirlian photography have stood the passing of time better than most of the visual culture of the 1970s. The technique for producing them was relatively simple. A piece of unexposed film would be positioned on a metal sheet, and the subject of the photograph placed on top of the film. Then a burst of high-voltage electricity was sent through the metal plate. The developed film would show a kind of silhouette of the item surrounded by a field of color, as if illuminated from within.

Living objects often had a ghostlike quality. The veins in a leaf, for example would seem to flow. If the leaf were cut with a pair of scissors, the before and after photographs might look remarkably similar, with a phantom image of the cutoff section still visible, veins and all. The fingers of an angry person would glow red, whereas someone calmed down with a little alcohol or marijuana would be bluish white.

Countless magazine articles and at least a half dozen books were devoted to Kirlian photography -- with popular interest driven by a sense that the images showed an the aura of psychic energy surrounding an organism but otherwise invisible. Perhaps the cutoff segment of the leaf was still there in the form of a "bioplasmic field."

At least, such effects sometimes appeared. The results varied considerably from one investigation to the next, in part because of variations in how the equipment was set up -- and the schematics were readily available, which meant a lot of amateur experimentation was conducted without much concern for reproducible results. In 1976, the journal Science published the report from an extensive study of the Kirlian phenomenon funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense. It found that the images were "principally a record of corona activity … accounted for by the presence of moisture on or within the [photographed organism's] sur­face." Speculations about the existence of a bioplasmic field were irrelevant, then -- cut off, for good, by Occam's razor.

Well, not exactly. The idea that the body is permeated and surrounded by a field of energy of some sort is perennial, and shaped as much by concrete experience as by consciously held beliefs. It's rooted in something as commonplace and tangible as the sensation of "feeling" a gaze and then finding someone staring at you.

For we are indeed each surrounded by a kind of invisible bubble possessing remarkable qualities. It can't be captured on film with high voltage. But plenty of research has been done to understand it, as demonstrated in The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution and Human Nature (Oxford University Press) by Michael S. A. Graziano, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University.

Much of the book is scientific popularization based largely on his own laboratory work, combined with a modest but highly pertinent account of some troubling personal experiences. As an undergraduate in the late 1980s, Graziano began working with macaque monkeys to study the sensory responses of neurons in an area usually considered part of the movement control system of the brain. When touched with a Q-tip, the touch sensors on the monkey's body would send a signal to the neurons, which responded with a burst of energy that the equipment made audible as clicks (more or less rapid according to the intensity of the response).

"But sometimes the neurons began to respond as the Q-tip approached the face or arms," Graziano reports, "before it had touched the fur. That was spooky … The neurons were evidently visually sensitive. Nobody had ever found visual responses in that part of the brain before."

The anomalous response inspired a long series of investigations into what Graziano came to call "bubble-wrap neurons … neurons that monitor bubbles of space wrapped around the body." These neurons not only fired in response to contact or to movement toward a monkey (the Q-tips later replaced by Ping-Pong balls on sticks) but also kept track of the location and trajectory of the stimuli.

The brain, in other words, contained not only a map of the body itself but a dynamic, real-time model of the space around the body -- technically known as peripersonal space. Operating much of the time on automatic, just at or below the level of ordinary awareness, it is also intricately involved in how we navigate the terrain of social behavior. "Personal space" is more than a figure of speech. At the same time, it understates the complexity of the phenomenon. The author suggests that the brain "computes many kinds of sensory space near the body, each emphasizing a different type of action: a space for reaching, a space for grasping, a space for buffering the self against collision, a space for guiding eye movements, a space for guiding walking or running. No doubt these many types of space interact. The networks in the brain that compute these spaces may engage in some crosstalk, but the different networks appear to emphasize fundamentally different categories of action."

Hence it is possible to endure mass transit, even though whole masses of neurons must be registering the breaches of personal space. What is particularly fascinating is evidence showing that our neural networks can expand to incorporate some tools -- making them, in effect, part of the body: "For example, visual peripersonal space stretches around a wheelchair, and auditory peripersonal space stretches around the cane of a blind person."

The Spaces Between Us ends with a chapter the author would surely prefer not to have had to write. Despite being a bright and seemingly normal preschooler, his son had a very hard time adjusting to the classroom. His handwriting was for the most part illegible, and he was prone to clumsiness to a degree that teachers began to think of it as evidence of an emotional disorder. A more accurate diagnosis was dyspraxia, a neurological disorder that affects motor coordination and skills. The author and his wife managed to find him suitable medical attention, and it sounds like he's made much progress. But it took a while to grasp that dyspraxia is, in part, a problem the brain has in creating an adequate map of peripersonal space based on what the sensory neurons are reporting.

"That invisible bubble of protected space," Graziano writes, "the space in which you don’t want other people, creates the scaffold for all other social transactions. It places us in a great social honeycomb of decorous relationships. We don’t usually notice it because it operates smoothly in the background. We unconsciously construct our own buffer zone and evaluate how other people are creating their buffer zones, and then we hang all our social niceties and judgments on that scaffold. Only when that construction goes wrong does it obtrude into consciousness."

It is, in the book's final words, "a vast invisible presence affecting all of us all the time." Just like the bioplasmic field, I guess, except it has the advantage of actually existing.

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